On this second full day of Paganicon, March 18, I recognized that my body-mind has its limits. I did attend a full plate of workshops (four total) that began earlier in the morning than they did yesterday, but I made sure to decompress between content-heavy sessions (sometimes it’s not easy having your brain run in “sponge mode” absorbing new information for hours on end) with some walking about and stretching my legs and my dollar bills y’all in the fun-filled aisles of the Vendors’ Gallery. I called it “quits” on the workshops altogether at 3:45 p.m. so that I could quickly grab the mead offering I’d specifically brought for The Morrighan. A Morrighan Meetup was being organized by my friend Gerrie in the party suite run by the Druids of the Midwest and I didn’t want to miss out!
Tonight is also the night of the Equinox Ball and I did bring a gown and mask (my ensemble is meant to evoke a specific character) and thus do plan on attending so I’ll also have to write this post in stages. Here we go!
Kristoffer Hughes Teaches “Druidry & Witchcraft” As Living Welsh Traditions
If you practice Polytheism or any variation of mythologically informed Paganism or Witchcraft and you’re not sure if Paganicon is the right hotel-based Pagan conference for you, let me assure you that getting to have a master class experience of learning from Brythonic Polytheist and Welsh Druid Kristoffer Hughes is alone worth the price of admission. I am in awe of his impeccable, engaging public speaking skills, his presence, and the vast amount of knowledge (linguistic, psychological, literary, historic, religious) he carries bilingually (Welsh is his native language) and transmits to eager audiences with such unstoppable joy. He is a tour de force of teaching. He is a Polytheist I look up to in so many ways. And he’s funny as hell and a snazzy dresser, to boot. He’s one of the most endearingly accessible “Big Name Pagans” you’ll meet. And even if he’s never met you before, he won’t treat you like an insignificant person. His Welsh hospitality comes across in his every interaction with others. I simply adore him.
I treated myself to not one but two of his workshops today, and the morning began with an immensely edifying cultural and linguistic foray into “Druidry & Witchcraft,” how they do and don’t overlap as living traditions in his native Wales–and how both differ sharply from Neopagan Druidry and Witchcraft as practiced in English language-dominant cultures like the UK, North America, and Australia.
I learned many key things.
First, as someone whose initial exposure to Paganism was initiation into Gardnerian Wicca, I had no idea that Gerald Gardner was a Druid! He was a forerunner to Ross Nichols, who went on to develop the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. Wicca and Druidry do have areas of overlap: both traditions mark an Eightfold Wheel of the Year; both are initiatory traditions; and both call in Powers, stationed at the cardinal directions, within a demarcated sacred space. The major difference is that while Wicca focuses on operative magic in the form of spell-casting, Druidry, as practiced in Wales, is an expression of cultural identity and celebrates a very distinct Bardic ethos and telos.
Welsh Bardic Druidry is an expression, culturally, of pride in being Welsh. Bards who meticulously train for years to memorize epic songs and stories comprising national folklore (methodically learning not just the content but how that content is presented in specified meters, internal rhyme and alliteration, and end rhyme) that can be recited on command before an audience of thousands of people are not necessarily “Pagan” individuals, but they do take their Bardic offices as a sacred charge. Bardic Druidry is what Kristoffer Hughes calls “Cultural Druidry,” and it’s a far cry from the Neopagan Druidry that’s been gaining increasing numbers of adherents outside of Wales/in the English-speaking world.
The unifying force in both types of Druidry, of course, is Awen: the Divine Principle animating the Cosmos that alights fires of inspiration in the mind and fires of creativity and devotion in the heart.
Witchcraft in Wales
Tellingly, the Welsh language, unlike English, doesn’t have a word for “witch.” Here’s where Hughes led us on a deep dive linguistically into some Welsh words, phrases, and spells. Gird yourselves for the onslaught of impossible-to-pronounce consonants!
“Swyngyfaredd” is a curious word to break down. The first four letters, “swyn,” can be defined as a noun meaning “enchantment,” “spoken charm,” or “spell.” The suffix of -edd clues us to the fact that we’re signifying another noun: a person who has the ability to craft such a spoken spell, someone to do the swyn. In Welsh society to the present day, the swyngyfaredd would translate to our modern Witch understanding of a “Cunning Person.” The person who, in rural societies, functions in the key positions of village doctor/midwife and veterinarian of farm animals, preparer of corpses for burial, herbalist, knower-of-things. “These people were the necessities of our culture,” Mr. Hughes explained.
Then we get to the curious word of “gwrach.” Yes, it sounds as bad to the ear as it looks to the eye! This word came into being only after colonization from the English. It connotes “anything that is repugnant and repulsive,” Hughes stated, but especially, thanks to imported cultural norms of misogyny from the 17th century onwards, the devalued female figure of the crone or hag. This stereotype of witch as crone is not indigenous to Wales and was imported from across the English border.
A folkloric figure that stems from this root word is Gwrach Y Rhibyn, a demonized witch figure meant to scare children into good behavior. Mr. Hughes’ description of Her brought the Lowlander Scottish Black Annis to my mind. (Spoiler alert: I’m a fan of Hers.)
As far as additional gender-specific terms assigned to women go, we also have rheibes, “a woman who curses and smites”; and gwiddon, historically a powerful, positive association linked to Celtic Goddesses and referring to strong women living in the literal edges of society, typically bordering forests. This term is closest to the loaded word of “witch” in the English language. Another term for a woman who “does magic” is swynwraig. A man who does magic is swynwr. And swynydd denotes a gender-neutral practitioner of magic.
Thus, the figure of the witch became denigrated from the 17th century onwards. Prior to that, she was seen as a wise woman who could prophesy and counsel warriors. She was seen as a sacred being closely tied to the land itself. By the mid-18th century, however, the witch underwent demonization and subsequently a figure of mockery and ridicule. Tellingly, during the Witch Craze that seized England and Scotland and much of Western Europe during the so-called Enlightenment, only two women in Wales out of a total of six arrested were convicted of witchcraft and executed…and those unfortunate two women were tried and hung by judges who came from England. The Welsh judges acquitted the remaining four. Go figure.
The Fascinating Figure of Cerridwen: Goddess or Witch?
Cerridwen certainly ties into the stereotypical image of the witch. She is a Witch Goddess. She is also known in Welsh as Mam Yr Awen, “the Mother of Awen,” and Gogyrwen, “the Holy Woman Who Winnows.” As Mr. Hughes explained, “She rocketed on through history as a Goddess because we require Her to be one.”
Unlike other Celtic Powers, Cerridwen is not a Goddess of Land, Sea, Sky. Neither, for that matter, is Rhiannon. “They belong in the Otherworld. They interact in our world and are not bound by our rules.” As Mr. Hughes went on to explain, Cerridwen is always in animal form when She manifests on our Earth plane, as during Her famous pursuit of Gwion Bach in the myth of Taliesin! Her feats of shapeshifting reveal much about the emphasis on liminality as a sacred concept.
“Everything in our world has a shape and an essence. The skilled magician can manipulate either one, something similar to our modern magical concept of Glamoury.”Kristoffer Hughes
The Topic of Curses
The concept of Tynged connotes “Destiny,” “Doom,” or Fate. It’s what the Goddess Aranrhod (note the exclusion of the letter “i” in Her name; that’s deliberate on my part for linguistic accuracy) pronounces upon Her son, Llew Law Gyffes.
“Cursing is not frowned upon in Welsh culture. If somebody does something to you, hex them. Hex them until they GLOW!”Kristoffer Hughes
Magic in Druidry
As with the distinctions of “High” and “Low” Magic in Western occult and Pagan circles, Welsh magic is divided into Folk and Bardic. Folk magic is known as Hudoliaeth Gwerinol, and like Bardic work, the methodology consists of trained and disciplined oral recitation combined with the practitioner’s intention. Mr. Hughes told us that simple country-folk spells are recited, on average, for 60 minutes nonstop to achieve their effect! Imagine the trance states the practitioners must be experiencing!
“Use words a certain way and you can denigrate, raise, uplift, or destroy somebody.”Kristoffer Hughes
Bardic magic is called Hudoliaeth Barddol, and as Hughes told us, “every word is chosen for a specific function and feature.”
Bardic magic is born of the cultural necessity to place Awen as the ritualistic function of Welsh society, Hughes explained.
If you’d like to learn more about the Polytheistic Druidry Order in which Mr. Hughes is an Arch Druid, you may want to look further into the Anglesey Druid Order.
Going to the Crossroads with Kelden to Learn About “The Witches’ Devil”
Zounds! Could it be…Satan? Or the Devil of folklore witches practicing contemporary Traditional Witchcraft align themselves with in their rites?
Who knew the Great Beast was so stinkin’ cute! (Aye, this is one of my gifts to myself from the Vendors’ Suite.) My second workshop of the morning was time spent in the wonderful company of Kelden as he introduced us to “The Witches’ Devil.”
The Devil, as Kelden explained, plays a key role in the history and folklore of Witchcraft. But Who is He? And why would witches today want to work with Him?
First, we need to look at how the concept of the witch in Western culture developed over time. In the Classical period of the Greco-Roman world, the witch was clearly a negative figure, one perceived as a threat to her community because of the harm she is capable of causing. In the European Middle Ages, the figure of the witch took on Satanic overtones from the conflation of heresy and sorcery: the Devil was thought to inspire both types of grievous “sins.”
Kelden then delivered a brief overview of the development of The Devil, emphasizing the need to make a sharp distinction between the Judeo-Christian theological construct of “Satan” versus “the Devil” of later European folklore.
To recap yesterday’s exposition of the term “folklore,” we’re referring to the beliefs, customs, and stories of a particular group of people. A folkloric concept of the Devil starts to emerge in the 13th century in Europe as something of a comedic figure: He can be outwitted by saints, hagiographies of the time illustrate. As the centuries progress, the Devil starts to take on more of a Trickster Figure role as well as a Spirit of the Land. Folktales like “Stingy Jack,” the origin story of how jack-o’-lanterns came to be a fixture of Halloween symbolism, show that the Devil likes to test the moral character of individuals.
As a Spirit of the Land, the Devil is often credited for shaping/causing different landmarks, unusual geological formations. Many places worldwide attest to the influence of his “work.” For example, during my drive through central Wisconsin to get to Paganicon on Thursday, I drove past a landmark called the Devil’s Lake, and I made a note to myself to check it out and hopefully camp there in the summer.
What the Witchcraft Trial Transcripts Reveal
In the Middle Ages, the Devil did embody many culturally Christian anxieties of the era, especially that the Devil would try to engineer the overthrow of Christendom by recruiting an army of witches to aid His cause. Of course, thanks to the prevailing cultural norms of deeply entrenched misogyny encoded in ecclesiastical catechism, these recruits would be comprised of “weak” souls, e.g., women, who naturally would fall prey to the temptation of earthly rewards from the Devil. In England in 1633, for example, court records show that an accused witch named Margaret Johnson confessed that the Devil promised her she could have vengeance on anyone who had ever wronged her if she would but obey him and renounce Christ.
The Devil also provided his witches with greatly desired material resources they were lacking in their impoverished daily lives, as well as opportunities to be unbridled and joyful at Sabbath gatherings.
The Devil in Modern Witchcraft
By the 19th century, the idea began circulating among Continental European and then British thinkers in the fields of anthropology and comparative religious studies that the women who were accused of being “witches” were most likely enacting surviving traces of Pagan worship to a Horned God ecclesiastical authorities in earlier periods of history mistakenly interpreted as the Devil. This idea was first promulgated by Jules Michèlet in France with La Sorcière in 1828 but was really developed a century later by Margaret Murray, who would hugely influence Gerald Gardner and the religion of Wicca. Murray, in both The Witch Cult (1921) and God of the Witches (1930), asserted that “the Devil” cited in the Medieval and Early Modern Period witch trial confessions was likely represented by a human man in a costume and mask.
Gerald Gardner piggybacked off this idea and incorporated it into Wicca, noting that the role of a Wiccan High Priest is to be an earthly representation of the Horned God, “he who was called the Devil in the old days,” as he wrote in Witchcraft Today (1954).
Gardner’s one-time acolyte, Robert Cochrane, is widely credited with spearheading what is now referred to as Traditional Witchcraft. A tenet in Trad Craft lore is the belief in a being known as the Witch Father, a primordial spirit Who coalesces the light-bearing function of Lucifer with a Chthonic aspect (Lord of the Mound) and a Green Man aspect (King of the Wild Wood/Fairy King). Some witches today name this Witch Father as the Devil; others don’t. Those who do say it’s done in the service of reclamation and honoring the folkloric heritage of Witchcraft.
Personally, in my own practices, I have another Name for how I interact with the Witch Father and it isn’t the Devil. However, I do acknowledge that there is a Devil; He’s quite the character in Serbian folklore, which I have written about extensively. I see the Devil as a separate Being and yes, I have trafficked with Him as well a time or two before and have rather enjoyed the experiences.
Back with Kristoffer Hughes and a Fascinating Glimpse into the Portals of “Mythology & the Mysteries of Druidry”
“Mythology isn’t something that we pull from the past; it’s something we recreate in the present. We’re imbibing it with the quality of now. These stories have that versatility to adapt to the needs of the people. Let the scholars argue about the linguistics of these mythologies but let the Druids and the Witches FEEL them!”Kristoffer Hughes
Categories and Functions of Myths
The way I like to define the word “myth” is to counteract the modern-day connotation of “falsehood” by defining a myth as “a sacred story that imparts eternal truth.” Kristoffer Hughes offered a definition I like much better: “Mythology is something that never happened that happens all of the time.” I’m reminded of the ancient Egyptians’ worldview that posited that Creation was not a one-time event: it is reenacted each day with the morning prayers to the Gods and the welcoming of Their sacred images into the temple’s inner sanctum to start the day. Creation is co-created by the temple clergy: Gods and humans work together in partnership to drive away the forces of izfet (chaos) and uphold ma’at (Divine Right Order).
That’s the key takeaway from this outstanding workshop Hughes led that taught me so much about Celtic belief and how to approach The Mabinogi in particular (which I have read more than once), valuable information indeed to help me deepen my relatively new devotional relationships with the Goddesses of Rhiannon and Aranrhod in particular. It’s a dictum those of us who have ever been involved in the theatre know: the performer needs the audience to co-create the magic of the performance on stage. We are called to be participants in myths; in fact, the listeners, the audience, of mythic tales like The Mabinogi ARE the protagonists themselves. We’re not spectators witnessing initiatory experiences befall someone else. It’s us. We’re Pryderi. We’re the Maponus in search of the Great Mother, the Modron. We’re ever embarking upon a Heroic Quest.
Celtic myths fall into the category of Tribal. The other two categories Mr. Hughes cited are Universal/International and Cosmic. Tribal myths tell us something about a people’s relationship with its land and with itself. Universal myths attest to the commonality of certain motifs found in myths in disparate cultures worldwide, including cultures that have had zero contact with one another. And Cosmic myths ascribe patterns of meaning to the fundamental truths of how the entire Universe functions and humanity’s role within it.
Mr. Hughes explained that the four categories of myths are pedagogical, sociological, cosmological, and mystical. Pedagogical has an Earth Elemental quality to it, grounding you to the experience of where you are in relation to your land. Sociological has an Air quality of communicating a people’s means of interpretation and communicating that interpretation. Cosmological introduces supernatural elements, the Powers and Beings lurking behind the surface layer of three-dimensional reality. And the mystical category “is where the deep magic is, where unification starts to express itself,” Hughes noted.
A given myth also has a triskelion-like quality of three components to it: the emotional reaction of Mythos; the quantifiable “facts” gleaned from its Logos, or self-contained world of reasoning and the intellectual approaches we bring to the myth to “dissect” it; and the all-important Anían, the inner essence of the myth. Overapplication of the Logos quality causes us to lose the Anían.
Most importantly, we have to feel the Mythos in our gut in order to be able to recreate the myth in the present and actually live it. Mythology was a lived experience to our ancestors; they applied the teachings to their everyday living. Shouldn’t we as modern Druids and Witches be doing the same?
Another important takeaway I gleaned from Mr. Hughes was this: None of these myths were meant to be written down. They were meant to be TOLD.
The Mabinogi (I finally know how to correctly pronounce it! Mah-bin-AW-gi [hard “g”]) are comprised of 11 native tales of Welsh tradition and are visualized as branches hanging on a tree. They are subdivided into four “branches” (yes, tree branches–not spokes on a diagram) that are collectively known as Pedeir Ceinc Y Mabinogi. Roughly translated, it means “Tales of Youthful Adventures” or “The Adventures of the Young God Mabon/Search of the Divine Child for the Great Mother.”
And all of you, my friends, are that very Mabon. That lost holy Child.
Mr. Hughes beautifully and poetically explained in a way no summary of mine could ever capture how there is such a powerful immanence to these tales; they speak to something that is inherently inside each one of us. The tales become our experiences. They are of now. We make them relevant and applicable to our lives.
We can state for certain that the Mabinogi are comprised of material far older than their medieval incarnations, the versions that were committed to the written word. They trace back to the old Britonic Gods.
The Linguistics of Celtic Goddess Names
My beloved Goddess Rhiannon is etymologically connected to the Continental/Gaulish Celtic Rigatona. Both of Their names are actually titles meaning “Great Queen.” And They are cognate with the Irish Morrígan, Who is also defined as “Great Queen.” Like Rhiannon, Án Morrígan has totemic birds that are there to open the Gates Between the Worlds.
Aranrhod is the original and correct form of this powerful Goddess of Sovereignty’s Name. The English introduction of the letter “i” to “Arianrhod” changes the meaning of Her Name to “Silver Wheel.” But Aranrhod actually translates to “the still, stable point in the center of the spokes of a wheel.” What can we thus infer about Her nature by contemplating this actual meaning of Her true name in Welsh? She stabilizes the journey of the initiate, and that has been completely lost in the English tampering of Her Name.
The Otherworld shown in The Mabinogi is called Annwfn (pronounced Ahn-OHV-en), which means “the very deep.”
Living Mythology in Our Daily Lives
So now you know that myths like the tales in the Mabinogi have an immanent quality that contextualize you as the audience member as the protagonist in the tale. We find ourselves compelled to undergo the archetypal Hero’s Quest. But I appreciated Hughes’ caution that we not overly psychologize how we apply myths to our lives; internalizing can go too far. After all, as a Polytheist, Hughes wants us to redirect our focus on the Gods Themselves and that we should aim to emulate the Virtues the Gods embody in these tales. He called it the concept of “Virtue Veneration.” What virtues does Rhiannon embody as She undergoes Her various trials in Book IV of the Mabinogi? How might you or I apply those virtues to our own lives?
Like the Gods, we, too, undergo trials and challenges that precipitate the crises moments of ordeal and abyss. These are key stages in any initiatory tradition, magically speaking, as well. The road back is never easy because it requires integration. But Mr. Hughes exhorts us to go for the gusto in our journeys.
“Go forth and be mythical and FUCKING FABULOUS!”Kristoffer Hughes
Back to Andras Corban-Arthen and His “Lessons from the Indigenous Pagan Survivals”
“I tend to stress Paganism as a European practice, as the term ‘Pagan’ was coined by Europeans to designate other Europeans.”Andras Corban-Arthen
I was disappointed in this talk; it didn’t meet my expectations of fulfilling the stimulating ground work Mr. Corban-Arthen introduced the day prior. I learned that he traveled to more than 30 European countries over the course of his lifetime but NOWHERE in the Balkans, where, I would argue, there has been documentation by many ex-Yugoslav anthropologists and archaeologists and historians and religious scholars of surviving Pagan practices in rural areas.
Mr. Corban-Arthen’s rule, and I’m paraphrasing, amounts to: If I personally didn’t travel to that country and see it for myself, then it can’t be included on my list of Places of Pagan Survival in Europe. His “list” includes the Celtic lands of Basque territories in Spain (Galicia), France (Brittany), the Scottish Highlands, and possibly Cornwall, but he can’t 100 percent confirm that location. Other pockets of Paganism in Europe, he says, include Lithuania, Latvia, the Ukraine (possibly Russia, but he’s not sure–even though hundreds of anthropologists have documented volumes on Pagan and Dual-Faith beliefs and practices), the Republic of Georgia, Iceland, the Saami lands of northern Scandinavia, and possibly Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
I started getting impatient with the fact that the title of this talk was misleading also; there were no “lessons” he was imparting, just rehashing the anecdotes of his biography that he already told us about yesterday.
When I glanced at my watch and saw it was 3:45 and I knew I wanted to go attend the Morrighan Meetup being held by the Druids of the Midwest in their party suite at 4 o’clock, I bolted out of the classroom door. The escape felt good!
But First, a Wee Bit of Shopping
My most favorite discovery of a trinket for myself at Paganicon has been this new crystal ally, a bioluminescent gemstone excavated from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (from Lake Superior’s shores, in fact) called Yooperlite. I need to get a UV light to show you how hypnotic it is when you can see its bioluminescent inclusions, but even without them I was mesmerized by this stone and I had to get it! I welcome the spirit as a new healing ally for me. Yooperlite is a “truth stone” that facilitates healing and is thought to help channel the emotion of anger in a healthy way. No wonder I gravitated towards it: huzzah!
My Experiences at the Morrígan Meetup with Druids of the Midwest
I had brought a small bottle of peach mead from a Chicago distillery to give to The Morrighan as an offering this weekend. I was so glad I made it to the Meetup organized by my dear friend Gerrie Ordaz in time!
This wasn’t a devotional ritual per se, but I welcomed the chance, after three long years of rituals and gatherings held via Zoom, to meet with like-minded souls face-to-face and share how we came to heed the croaking call of Án Morrígan. There was a great turnout! Gerrie shared a new Morrighan-themed oracle deck she just ordered on Etsy and I drew a card whose meaning really resonated with me and the forces of healing I feel are very much at work on my behalf this Paganicon weekend.
Here’s the meaning of the “Offering of Milk” card:
“Come and drink. Let our Fates be knitted together. Come and drink from the fatted cow in the field. When you tire from the battle, let me give you strength. When you find yourself full, by your trust I am healed. What I give is also become my medicine.”The Oracle of the Morrigan, printed and distributed by Feral Magic (c) 2021
Reading this card’s meaning gave me chills because it came immediately after my recitation to the group of the praise poem I’d written to The Morrighan last Samhain, which you can read about here.
Postscript: The Equinox Ball
Gerrie and I hung out at tonight’s festive Ball. I was dressed as the Lady of Elphame, arrayed in my hues of hunter green and donning my mysterious mask. We saw amazing folks dressed in gorgeous costumes that earned them rightful spots on the stage for the Costume Contest. We were thrilled to hear that Baba Yaga won best Individual Costume and Best Group Costume went to a three-fold ensemble called Spring Garden.
I must say the Camelot Mead I tried was excellent! I am a true mead connoisseur and this is a bottle I want to bring home with me!
And on that note, I bid you all a good night!
- Andras Corban-Arthen
- Bardic magic
- Celtic polytheism
- devotional Polytheism
- Druid Order of Anglesey
- Druids of the Midwest
- folk magic
- indigenous European
- Kristoffer Hughes
- Paganicon 2023
- Satanic Panic
- the Devil
- The Mabinogion
- The Morrighan
- Traditional Witchcraft
- Welsh language
- Witch Father