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The Druids were Celtic pagan priests. Although much pseudo-history and quasi sacred lore can be found, in actual fact we don’t know too much about them because they were sworn to secrecy and not permitted to express their beliefs in writing. We do, however, have written accounts from indirect sources.
When in Gaul, the Roman leader Julius Caesar noted that the Druids worshipped gods, passed on their traditions to the young, practiced human sacrifice in oak groves and forbade certain people from attending sacrificial ceremonies. Because attendance at sacrificial ceremonies cemented one’s in-group status, those forbidden to attend were marginalized.
Caesar also says the Druids met annually at a location taken to be the center of Gaul. Like contemporary priests, they didn’t fight in wars nor pay taxes. The Roman writer Pliny (the Elder, 23-79 CE) wrote that, in addition to their priestly role, the Druids were seers, diviners and healers.
The ancient Roman senator and historian Tacitus (56–117 CE) mentions Druidic presence in Britain. The Druids served as officials at their allegedly bloody and frightening human sacrifices, the victims usually being criminals. Sometimes, however, innocent people were sacrificed in times of national calamity.
Caesar says that giant casings of intertwined branches held victims as they were burnt alive by the Druids. Humans and animals, alike, were used as burnt offerings for the gods. However, it’s been suggested that the Romans cited the Druidic practice of human sacrifice to undermine the Druid’s political power. The Romans, themselves, executed human beings for the apparent good of the State (in the form of scourging to the death or crucifixion) but human sacrifice to the gods was no longer practiced in the classical world.
Despite New Age philosophies based on the alleged teachings of the Druids, there is scant hard evidence that they possessed any detailed body of esoteric knowledge or, as S. G. F. Brandon puts it, “any subtle and sophisticated philosophy.” Brandon, in fact, suggests that the Druids were not unlike any other “barbarian priesthood.”¹ And there’s no visible evidence to link the Druids with Stonehenge, as suggested by the English writer John Aubrey in 1649 and by numerous TV specials and contemporary enthusiasts.
Through the fantasy literature of writers like J. J. R. Tolkien and Terry Brooks, the idea of the Druid-Sorcerer is firmly established as a kind of archetypal image depicting the powerful, brooding, wise and yet somewhat ambivalent magician. Not surprisingly, Druids feature prominently in off- and online gaming.
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¹ S. G. F. Brandon ed., “Celtic (Pagan) Religion” in A Dictionary of Comparative Religion: New York: Scribner, 1970, p. 180-184. By way of contrast, Neo-Druidism is a movement that, among other things, venerates nature.
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Gaius Julius Caesar (c. 100 – 44 BCE)
In the Punic tongue the word caesar means “elephant.” Caesaries also means “thick head of hair.” The surname Caesar was given to the Julian family of patricians¹ at Rome, because one family member once owned an elephant or had a healthy scalp.
After Julius had become the Dictator of Rome, his surname became an honorary title for the next 11 emperors during the age of the Roman Emperors, each emperor being hailed as a new “Caesar.” So we often hear about the “12 Caesars,” which includes Julius.
Julius was an innovative and tough political and military genius who single-handedly broke down the old Roman republic.
When sailing to finish his education at Rhodes, he was held captive by pirates. Paying more than demanded for his release he quickly returned with a ship of his own and crucified the pirates he had recently paid.
The Roman writer Pliny says that he conquered 800 cities, 300 nations and three-million people, which at that time in history was a considerable percentage of the Earth’s population.
Caesar traveled to current day England, where he wrote on the practices of the Druids. A learned scholar and historian, he used his influence to reshape the calendar into one with 365 days and leap years, making the year 365.25 days long. This Julian calendar was largely replaced by the Gregorian calendar, but it’s still used in some countries today.
Politically he would be closer to a Democrat (or Liberal) than a Republican (or Conservative). He favored the populares (nobles who worked through and acted for the benefit of the people) over the optimates (nobles who opposed the populares, claiming to represent everyone and not just the poor).
His end came about on the Ides of March (15 March, 44 BCE), the result of a conspiracy hatched by his closest advisers, all of whom stabbed him to death. The killers were lead by Brutus and Cassius. Apparently Caesar resisted the attackers after the first stab wound, but upon seeing his friend Brutus among the group, accepted his grisly fate.
The night before his death Caesar’s wife had vivid and terrible dreams, which perhaps Caesar should have taken into consideration. He was also warned of the plot by Artemidorus in a letter sent to the senate house, which he failed to read.
By the time of his death Caesar had stopped listening to the nobles altogether, a move which they clearly didn’t like. He had virtually ended the old Republic and his overweening confidence, which had taken him so far, ultimately led to his downfall.
His life has been depicted in several films and William Shakespeare wrote the tragic play, Julius Caesar, which looks at the conspiracy leading to his death, especially from the perspective of Brutus. Shakespeare’s Brutus, in fact, gets about four times as many lines as Caesar.
¹ The patricians were a privileged class of Romans who, among other things, dominated politics and the priesthood.
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The Mistletoe is a shrub that’s traditionally been charged with symbolic import, and it still has cultural significance today.
Robert Graves says that in European pagan times Mistletoe was taken to be the oak tree’s genitals. The Druids ritually chopped it with a gold-colored sickle, which was a kind of “symbolic emasculation.”†
In addition, the juice of the berries was understood as the tree’s sperm, having “great regenerative virtue.” So in pre-Christian Europe mistletoe was associated with the spark and spice of life.
In cultures across pre-Christian Europe, mistletoe was seen as a representation of divine male essence (and thus romance, fertility and vitality), possibly due to a resemblance between the berries and semen.‡
In ancient Roman mythology, Aeneas is prompted by Sibyl to journey to the underworld. On his journey he carries mistletoe, which enables his safe return to the everyday world. And Graves believes that a “‘certain herb’ that raised Claucus from the tomb” was probably mistletoe.†
Today, Christmas revelers continue to feel obliged kiss under the mistletoe, this curious custom possibly having its roots in Scandanavia (others associate the practice further back to the ancient Roman Saturnalia festival).
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† Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Combined edition, London: Penguin, 1992, p. 176.
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Broadly speaking, magic is the use of supernatural power to cause an effect on or gain knowledge of people, souls, animals, vegetation, objects, the elements and events. Magical procedures may involve elaborate ritual and are variously directed towards the past, present, future and afterlife or some combination thereof.
A distinction is usually made between white and black magic. White magic is allegedly intended to help people. Black magic is revengeful with the intent to harm others and thus more clearly evil.
Sympathetic magic is the belief that one event causes another, so the magician imitates a desired outcome. A positive example would be painting animals on a cave wall in the belief that this will enrich the hunt. A negative example would be believing that a barren woman is the cause of a blighted crop.
Contagious magic is based on the belief that things once in physical contact or proximity continue to have a magical connection after they’re separated.
The most familiar example of Contagious Magic is the magical sympathy which is supposed to exist between a man and any severed portion of his person, as his hair or nails; so that whoever gets possession of human hair or nails may work his will, at any distance, upon the person from whom they were cut. This superstition is world-wide.¹
Another distinction is made between magic and religion. As Joachim Wach (1898-1955) suggests:
Religion differs from magic in that it is not concerned with control or manipulation of the powers confronted. Rather it means submission to, trust in, and adoration of, what is apprehended as the divine nature of ultimate reality.²
However S. G. F. Brandon says this is a biased perspective:
…such attempts generally rest on a priori definitions of the two entities concerned.³
Sociologists also point out similarities between magical and religious rituals. However, structural similarities do not necessarily entail equivalence.
We could, for instance, say that Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and New York are both big cities. Each has roads, buildings, people, movie halls and markets. But anyone visiting these two locales will be struck by their differences.
While an outsider may think that religious and magical rituals look the same and bring about similar results, to believers (on both sides) the numinous results differ dramatically. Modern magicians often say (or imply) that religious ritual is just an empty shell, cut off from any spiritual meaning it may have once had. Meanwhile, many contemporary religious persons shun magical rituals, often saying that the result brings about a kind of dark, gloomy, heavy and obscuring spirituality that is the work of evil.
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¹ Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941). The Golden Bough. 1922. http://bartelby.org/196/7.html
² Joachim Wach, The Comparative Study of Religions, ch. 2, Columbia University Press (1958), cited in The Columbia World of Quotations, 1996.
³ Dictionary of Comparative Religion, ed. S. G. F. Brandon, New York: Charles Scribners & Sons, 1970, p. 418.
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- Most cultures have strong ideas about what kind of magic is “women’s magic” and what kind is only for men. Is there any basis for any of these distinctions, outside of cultural mores? Anything an aspiring sorceress should do differently from a sorcerer? (strategicsorcery.blogspot.com)
- My Chaos Magic Re-look (strategicsorcery.blogspot.com)
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Some contend that the idea of the ‘New Age’ originated as a marketing category in the 1980s, with New Age style ideas going back, of course, to the 70s and 60s.
Others note, more comprehensively, that the media also uses the term, as do many individuals and organizations. Whatever its origins, the ‘New Age’ refers to almost anything relating to contemporary spiritual discourse and practice.
New Age books, music, lectures, workshops, videos and websites deal with humanity’s development, usually with the goal of self-actualization and sometimes global transformation.
At the outset of the 20th-century, the American psychologist and philosopher William James outlined his The Varieties of Religious Experience several innovative spiritual trends remarkably similar to today’s concept of the New Age:
…for the sake of having a brief designation, I will give [it] the title of the ‘Mind-Cure movement.’ There are various sects of this ‘New Thought,’ to use another of the names by which it calls itself.¹
From the 1980s to around the new millennium religious fundamentalists, especially of the North American Christian variety, targeted the New Age as the workings of Satan. Important figures like C. G. Jung, Rudolf Steiner and Fritjof Capra were caricatured as Satanic hostiles to apparently ‘true’ fundamentalist versions of the Christian faith.
However, the emphasis of fundamentalist reactionary attacks has arguably shifted from perceived psychological and spiritual threats to scientific ones. Believers in evolution sans God are the new devils in the flesh to be countered and corrected by those single-minded Fundamentalists who believe they have a privileged interpretation of Christian scripture.
This shift is probably due to recent advances in mapping and sequencing genomes. The possibilities of this technology are staggering, and the new is always scary to those deeply entrenched and invested in longstanding cultural biases.
¹ William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Penguin, 1985 , p. 94.
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Pagan is an often but not always pejorative term denoting a polytheist or someone who is not a Christian, Jew or Muslim.
During the Middle Ages accused pagans were often lumped together with the idea of witchcraft, and the Christian Church sanctioned successive waves of barbaric torture and killing under the guise of purifying the Earth of the devil and his demons, which included the various pagan deities.
The mistrust of Paganism, however, stems back to Biblical times.
Today the Catholic Church formally accepts all that is from God within non-Catholic belief, but in practice is, on the whole, extremely cautious when dealing with Pagan religions.
Catholics usually say that Pagan beliefs contain elements of “error” but many Protestants – especially Bible-based Fundamentalists – maintain that Catholicism itself has lapsed into Paganism with the belief in a multiplicity of intercessors and the related veneration of Saints (to include the Virgin Mary).
In contemporary scholarly circles the pejorative connotations around the word Paganism are often removed – or apparently removed. Sometimes, however, scholars roundly denounce Pagan belief.
Scholarship, like anything else, does not enjoy a magic banner of pure objectivity. This belief itself could be viewed as a kind of neo-Paganism in that something less than God (i.e. human research and analysis) is artificially elevated to heights it does not deserve.
Peter Gay¹ traces the development of contemporary Paganism to the European Enlightenment and Renaissance, where new ideas and ways of looking at things apparently enabled mankind to deconstruct its dogmatic Christian heritage.
¹See Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (1966).