Steve, thanks for visiting and for your comment. I’d actually visited the site of your worthy Celtic conlang, Galathach, prior to writing my posts on “A Druid Ritual Language.” I would have included Galathach as well, but then along with other deserving candidates I might have mentioned, the post would have gone MUCH longer.
I know you’ve taken some flack by critics regarding the “authenticity” of your reconstruction and revival. From my perspective, the proof is in the passion: you’ve actually done the work and you have a well-elaborated language to show for it, while they quibble over details and apply criteria that I suspect never interested you in the first place! After all, you’re very clear and transparent about your process at the outset. As you note explicitly in your introduction,
Drawing on the existent available material, and making use of the surviving Brittonic languages, as well as the Gaelic languages, for support and comparative studies of such things as vocabulary, semantics and grammatic structure, a modernised version of the Gaulish language is here presented. Departing from the state in which Gaulish was last attested, that is Late Gaulish, the language of circa the fifth century CE, a series of sound changes, phonetic evolutionary processes and grammatic innovations are postulated. As such, a hypothetical evolution of the language is constructed, the proposed outcome of which is a practically useable modern Celtic language, to be situated in the framework of the modern Celtic languages.
While the process of reconstructing or reassembling a language is challenging, it has been done as conscientiously as possible, starting from the original material and attempting to stay as faithful as possible to it, while applying a set of changes which could have been reasonably expected to have happened to the language had it not ceased to be spoken. These changes are based on evolutionary processes which can be observed in the available authentic material, as well as on related processes which have occurred in the related surviving languages. As much as possible, justification for changes and adaptation is provided by drawing from the original material. Creative imagination, or, to put it differently, making up random stuff , has been kept to a minimum. These various changes, adaptations and processes will be discussed in detail in the various sections dealing with them in the body of this document.
The notable point is that Galathach now exists, when it didn’t before, and as you say, it has a full grammar and a (soon to be) dictionary. Nicely done!! Already that puts it in the top 5 or 10% of conlangs, hordes of which rarely get beyond a short wordlist, if that, or a provisional sketch of grammar. (Incidentally, there’s nothing wrong with that; most conlangers have many sketches and usually — unless you’re David Peterson of Dothraki/Game of Thrones fame – only one or two conlangs elaborated to any degree.) Your reconstruction/modernization of Galathach hAtheviu, “Revived Gaulish,” is documented, reasoned, consistent, and reflective of a devotion to things both Celtic and “conlang-y.”
So I’m happy to commend it and refer others to it (repeating that it IS a conlang rather than one of the six living Celtic tongues, just so everyone is clear). That said, it certainly is Celtic in blood and bone! And if a grove or an individual uses it for ritual, it becomes a living language by choice and art, equal to any other. As conlangers like to say, Fiat Lingua! Let there be (more) such languages! Humans made languages, so it’s a quibble of a peculiar kind to call one language “natural” and another “artificial.” (Conlanging has always seemed to me a particularly Druidic activity, but then I’m clearly doubly biased myself as both conlanger and Druid.) May Galathach thrive!
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Kuklunomes. Karla, our ritual leader, half-sings, half-speaks the word in Priyosta Grove’s dedicated language. Let’s form the circle.
Swonago! says Russ, as he strikes a singing bowl forcefully. The sound ripples through the clearing. We’ve been experimenting with opening gestures and words. These seem to work for us now. I can feel without looking that the others are listening, as I am, as the sound fades.
Already the five of us who’ve gathered have been falling out of speech and into a ritual hush. April wind blows chill through our grove, though the sun in a cloudless sky feels blessedly warm on our faces. I open my eyes. Dry brown grass whispers around us and underfoot, but the rains have greened things as well. Almost everyone still wears long sleeves, though a few dare to bare a little more. Russ strikes the bowl a second time, and cries Swonago! just as Angie and Dan enter the grove. They’re somewhat flushed, and release hands as they separate to walk to opposite sides of the circle. Our resident young couple has plainly been making out. Karla smiles at Angie, who’s tousled and a little breathless.
For the invocation, Karla passes to Michelle the staff she’s handcarved. For each gathering she decorates it anew. This time, on one end of the staff, three bird feathers, and a neat braid of colored ribbons cut from scraps from the Beltane rite last year. Michelle raises it toward Karla in acknowledgement, than lifts it high over our heads. The words to come are hers. We each bring a piece of this rite, having rehearsed it through a flurry of emails and briefly in a conference call a week ago, fighting static over a bad connection. All becomes part of Grove tradition, stories to retell, to share with newcomers when the time is right, to remind us who we are.
Gods, spirits, ancestors of blood and the heart’s bond, Michelle chants in a minor-key singsong, we call you to sift our intent, to join our rite, and to bless what we share here and always.
The words ripple up and down my spine. I glance around the circle again, wanting to take it all in. Dan and Angie’s eyes are closed. Both their heads tilt slightly as they listen. To the casual observer, we’re just as casual: no robes or massive Pagan bling. Look closer and you might see a few discrete pentagrams, a few modest-sized pendants and earrings. One bearded fellow we know only as Dragon wears jeans and an embroidered white dress-shirt, a fluid Celtic pattern worked in red. Michelle has brought water in our lovely aquamarine offering bowl that she found some years ago at a household auction and gifted to Priyosta Grove. Friendship, it translates, or Amity. An ongoing goal for us, an intention. Michelle passed the bowl to Dragon when Karla handed her the staff. Some of the rite we’re improvising now, relaxed at what’s scripted and what arrives free-form.
Dragon steps forward to bless the circle with water. He’s at ease, smiling slightly, as he sprinkles each of us in turn.
Western gods and spirits, lakes and rivers, blood in our veins, oceans circling, he chants slowly, turning to each of us, we call you here, now.
Dragon’s name, I’m beginning to sense, fits him well after all. I remember how I rolled my eyes a little when I first heard him introduce himself, then scolded myself as a Pagan snob.
Now, briefly, I flash onto a serpentine form, awash in a frothy sea — a water dragon. Its arcing wings shoot a cascade of cool, refreshing water over us. I shudder involuntarily in surprise at the vividness of what I experience. A confirmation, something to tell him after, if it feels right.
I look around again at the others. All of us are in fact wearing ritual garb. The point is comfort and ritual dedication. We’ve changed into these clothes, but they’re modern, like our ritual. Priyosta has never come close to discussing anything like a “ritual dress code,” let alone tried to make one a formal policy — nobody has the balls, nor could they get it to stick anyway – but over our eight years of existence, we’ve established our own unwritten sensibility. One piece of jewelry you’ve dedicated and worn to many rites over time is almost always better than thirty pounds of robes and bling from “Auntie Gaia’s Mystyk Cauldron and Proud Pagan Emporium.” In big circles and at major festival gatherings, some of us might dress up more. For this and for our other local rituals, we dress “in” — that one piece of clothing or jewelry that helps remind us as we breathe the smoking sage, feel the water of the blessing, that solvas son yagnei – all things are holy.
We continue inviting the Quarters, and settle in to the Rite. We tell what feels appropriate, and pass over the rest, belonging to the Grove alone.
It’s not a major festival that’s brought us together this time. Priyosta doesn’t always manage to meet for every one of the “Eight Greats.” You follow the Wheel as you can. But it’s time for our own thanksgiving. The papers are signed and filed, the last check cleared our now very small grove bank account, the land title arrived on Monday. This little hilltop with its stand of birches is now officially “ours” to care for. A former hunter’s camp, much of it had been badly trashed, but we got it for back taxes and not a whole lot more. A trust, for our grove to hold and heal, and when the time comes, to pass on. We keep its location private, to preserve it from further heedless indifference.
[Part 2 coming soon.]
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Image: birch grove.
[Part 1 | Part 2]
A Whole Ritual Language
So you still want not just a few phrases but a complete language dedicated to your rituals?! And you’re crazy enough not just to think about this but to actually plan to pull it off! In spite of all the alternatives I mentioned in the previous post, like simply using a small number of individual words or phrases as ritual triggers, you’re still determined to acquire the complete ritual language package. You want to be able to compose new rites in this language, not just insert a few fixed phrases here and there in your rituals. And wrth gwrs (oorth goors) of course, your circle, grove, grotto, temple, fane, gathering or group is with entirely with you — 100%. Or they will be, once you browbeat or bribe or trick them to try it out, once they’re enchanted and seduced by the undeniable power and majesty and beauty of your fully-equipped ritual tafod (TAH-vohd) tongue. You know in your heart of hearts that soon enough they’ll be saying diolch (DEE-olkh) “thanks” to you for bringing them into the light (or the luminous darkness).
The First Candidate
Here’s the first ritual language candidate for your consideration, Welsh, along with some of the stronger arguments in its favor:
*It’s one of the six living Celtic languages, so you’ve got the authenticity thing covered. No one can accuse you of wimping out on that point.
*Hey, you already can say a couple of things in it, like wrth gwrs (oorth goors) “of course” and tafod (TAH-vohd) “tongue” and diolch (DEE-olkh) “thanks.”
*It’s from the “easier” side of the Celtic family: Welsh, along with Cornish and Breton (the P-Celtic branch), are considered easier to learn and speak (for English speakers) than Irish, Scots Gaelic, or Manx (the Q-Celtic branch) for a number of reasons: pronunciation, grammar, and spelling.
*The writing system uses a version of the Roman alphabet. True, because of the spelling of Welsh words like wrth gwrs and tafod and diolch, some have unkindly called written Welsh “alphabet vomit,” but Welsh offers a much better match between sound and symbol than does, say, English. Different doesn’t have to mean worse, and it can sometimes even mean better. Think about such oft-cited English examples like the pronunciation of -ough in through, rough, though, cough, and bough. You’ll be glad to know there’s extremely little of that in Welsh.
*It has a solid and well-documented literary history — the Mabinogion, that medieval collection of marvelous tales, is one of its chief glories — one which several modern Druid orders have used as a set of Druid teaching texts. Here for your delectation is the first line (in medieval Welsh) of Branwen, Daughter of Llyr:
Bendigeiduran uab Llyr, a oed urenhin coronawc ar yr ynys hon, ac ardyrchawc o goron Lundein.
“Bendigeidfran son of Llyr was the crowned king of this island, and exalted with the crown of London.”
[Bendigeidfran is pronounced roughly "ben-dee-GUIDE-vrahn"]
*There are numerous helpful learning aids available, including online materials like the Big Welsh Challenge. That means there’s plenty of assistance for students of the language, in large part because enough Welsh people themselves want to learn Welsh.
*Welsh is arguably doing as good a job at surviving the onslaught of English as any of the other Celtic languages. In other words, it’s not going away any time soon.
*Welsh makes a distinctive auditory impact on listeners — check out the short video below to hear several Welsh speakers:
Other Options — Proto-Indo-European
Or maybe Welsh still seems too much to tackle. (Did you catch the last word of the video – diolch [DEE-olkh] “thanks”?) You still want your own language, but something different. It doesn’t need to be a living language. In fact, a more private one might even serve better. You understand that ritual secrecy isn’t meant to exclude anyone but rather to focus and contain energies, like the Cauldron of the Goddess brewing those three drops of inspirational awen. Yes, there are still other options.
For instance, you could investigate Proto-Indo-European (PIE) — the Big Kahuna itself, the “Grandmother Tongue” of the speakers of all the hundred or so Indo-European languages alive today, spoken by more than 2 billion people. I’ve mentioned Ceisiwr Serith in a previous blog, whose fine book Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans offers much material for reflection, adaption and use. Serith writes and practices from an ADF perspective, emphasizing historical scholarship. You can also check out his website for more information and challenge.
Dictionaries and grammars of PIE are available online and through sellers like Amazon. With some hours of initial study and effort, you can begin to create short sentences like this one: yagnobi ognibi tum wikyo (YAHG-noh-bee OHG-nee-bee toom week-YOH) “I hallow you with sacred fire.” Using such resources I’ve fashioned these and other words and phrases for ritual. While scholars and amateur Indo-Europeanists can and will quibble quite endlessly* about “correct” or well-founded pronunciation and grammar, you’ll be exploring a ritual essence you can incorporate into your rites to enrich and empower them. Isn’t that the point?
(*It’s significant — and highly relevant for our purposes — that there’s much stronger consensus on PIE vocabulary than on grammar, details of pronunciation, or wider issues of culture, religious practice, original homeland, and so on. That’s as it should be: we intuitively understand that it’s in the names of things that we reach closest to the heart of any language, especially ritual language.)
The Celtic Conlang
Or you could go the Celtic conlang route, selecting from the pool of shared vocabulary that Welsh, Cornish and Breton (or Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx) have in common, and build your language piece by piece. Books like D. B Gregor’s Celtic: A Comparative Study (Oleander Press, 1980) devote several chapters to — you guessed it — detailed comparisons of the six Celtic languages. If you have some skill with languages (and you do, or you wouldn’t be considering this route, would you?), you can adapt and regularize to your heart’s content. To give you some idea, with a couple of dictionaries and the running start of sites like Omniglot’s Celtic Connections page, you can devise your own language with as much Celtic flavor as you wish.
Three Existing and Well-developed Celtic Conlangs
There are other conlang options too, like Deiniol Jones’ detailed Arvorec, Andrew Smith’s Brithenig and Alex Middleton’s Kaledonag. All three of these are sufficiently elaborated that you could create ritual materials in them. And you’ve got living conlangers that you can consult — or hire — for help.
Commission Your Own Unique Language
If you or your grove have some cash on hand, there’s yet another option, if you want to commission a conlanger to make you a unique never-before-seen-or-spoken ritual conlang. As I mentioned in the previous post, you can call on the Language Creation Society for help. Here’s the relevant LCS page for requesting a conlanger to create a language to your specs. Note the following minimum costs, as of today, 3/26/14: “We require a minimum of $150 for a language sketch, $300 for a full language, and $300 for an orthography.” (Each term is explained further on the page.) The commissoning person or group gets to set a wide range of criteria — worth investigating if this option appeals to you. Self-disclosure: Yes, I’m a member of the LCS, because they’re the best such group around. Like the ADF motto says, “Why not excellence?”
(Almost) Last, Best, and Deepest …
It shouldn’t come (almost) last, but here it is. If you’d like a deeper ritual challenge, ask your spirits, guides or gods for help. I’ve gotten valuable material this way, including large portions of blog posts (see here and here for examples), and I’m certainly far from unique. Others have also received names, prayers, rituals and other spiritual material from contemplation, trance, and ritual itself. If the God/desses want you to use a special or dedicated language in your rites, they’ll help. Just ask. What is inspiration, after all?!
Another illustration may help. Several years ago, over the space of about six or seven weeks, an acquaintance of mine named Chris received an entire ritual conlang – several thousand words, names, grammatical ideas, and — how else to say it? — cultural practices, like gestures, ritual apparel, symbols, etc. — through a series of visions and inner communications. We talked about his method, his process. He’d record as much as he could recall from a given experience or vision, then ask for guidance in recovering whatever he’d missed or forgotten, trying out names and phrases, for example, to see if they were acceptable in prayers and rituals, if they sounded right to the gods and to his own growing sense of “fit,” based on what he’d been given so far. For instance, the name Nezu came through, an inner guide he could call on. Testing the name, modifying it from the initial version he’d received, until it “worked” and felt right, mattered to him, and the name grew in impact because he took the time (hours and hours!) and made the effort. In short, he sacrificed for what he desired; he hallowed his own efforts through his dedication and attention and love, and the gods hallowed them for him in turn. Rarely is it just one or the other, after all.
Now Chris was interested in conlangs and had some experience learning, or learning about, several different languages. He knows some Elvish, Klingon and Na’vi, and he’s studied several different human languages in varying degrees of depth. Such a background doesn’t hurt, of course. The gods work with what we give them. If you’re a musician, you may get inspiration for songs. If you’re a visual artist, you may get images, and so on. Nurture and encourage the ritual skills and human talents of the people in your group, and you’ll be surprised at what they can achieve.
So you’ve got it down — your ritual books (unless you and your grove are really devoted, and all of you memorize your rites) are meant to make using the language as easy as possible, both for members and any visitors who drop in for your Evocation, Consecration, Tranformation, Prognostication, etc. Just hold off on the big-screen Powerpoint version until you become a Mega-grove, along the lines of the Protestant Mall-Churches.
A Note on Compiling Ritual Booklets
You know you can get your grove members to pronounce almost anything unusual reasonably well, just like Catholics have been doing with pronunciation guides like the following example from Pray It in Latin (pg. 3) by Louis Pizzuti. (My apologies if you have bad Church memories.) If you haven’t been paying attention, I’ve given short examples of this strategy earlier in this blog with wrth gwrs and tafod and diolch. Now you’ll remember these three, right? You’ve seen them three times, that magic number of manifestation and long-term memory.
OK, now see how well you manage learning to pronounce some Ecclesiastical Latin:
Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum,
AH-vay Maria GRAHT-see-ah PLAY-nah DOH-mee-noos TAY-koom
Hail Mary filled with-grace Lord with-you
benedicta tu in mulieribus,
bay-nay-DEEK-tah too een moo-lee-AY-ree-boos
blessed you among women
et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.
ayt bay-nay-DEEK-toos FROOK-toos VAYN-trees TOO-ee YAY-soos.
and blessed fruit womb yours Jesus
Sancta Maria Mater Dei
SAHNK-tah Maria MAH-tayr DAY-ee
Holy Mary Mother of-God
ora pro nobis peccatoribus
OHR-ah proh NOH-bees payk-ah-TOH-ree-boos
pray for us sinners
nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen
noonk ayt een HOR-ah MOHR-tees NOHS-tray AH-mayn
now and in hour of-death of-ours. Amen.
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[Part 1 | Part 3]
I’ll be covering a fair bit of ground in this post, and supplying a larger than usual number of links (distractions?), since so many of you, my readers, come from such diverse perspectives and experiences. Thus it is that while some of what I say here will be sure to irritate, confuse or bore some of you, there’s a very fair chance the same sections won’t be the same irritants for everybody. And with a liberal helping of what goes under the names of luck, awen, grace, and chance, some of it might actually be useful to you.
So what do you make of this video?!
Ritual and Ritual Language are Pan-human
One of my points in including the “Biker Blessing” — whatever you think of Pope Francis, the pontiff sure has his own style — is simply to illustrate two important points we keep forgetting: all humans participate in and perform rituals, and they’re both utterly common and rather strange, when you actually begin to examine them more closely.
To give just one common example, if you intend to get hitched in a church, you’re not yet married until right after the presiding clergy says some equivalent of the words “I now pronounce you man and wife.” So what do those words do?! (For the nerds among us, this has been called the performative aspect of language, according to the theory of speech acts in a book with the fine title of How to Do Things with Words by Brit J. L. Austin.)
It’s because the West in particular often lacks (read “threw the baby out with the bathwater over the last century”) meaningful ritual that ritual has come to preoccupy many Druids and Pagans generally. But it bears repeating that ritual isn’t merely a Druid or even a Pagan concern: ritual and ritual languages cover the planet.
Here’s a remarkably respectful video from a 3-minute 2010 BBC broadcast. (Title includes “OBOD” but no mention is made of it in the video itself, so don’t worry — I’m not proselytizing — really!):
“Ceremonies of Innocence”
Another common example. Depending on how you were raised, your parents taught you to say “thank you” and “excuse me.” In the process they likely also taught you that the forms themselves matter, as much as or often more than your heartfelt gratitude or apology. The discipline of saying the words themselves – often — was enough. (If you’re feeling cynical, you could argue that this is one of our first formal lessons in hypocrisy.) We may rail justifiably against “empty language,” but that’s not the fault of ritual. The emptiness of much empty talk issues from a lack of conviction or perspective behind it. As Yeats said in his poem “The Second Coming,” “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” So we get loudness and passion as the daily menu on far too many of our media of choice, while stillness and reflection flee for the hills. But (to mix metaphors) that’s where these two inexhaustible caves of treasures lie waiting. We can, if we desire to, recover the “ceremonies of innocence.”
A Side-note on Definitions
You may have noticed that I carefully sidestepped the issue of what “ritual” is and what a “language” is. If you want more information on these fascinating and often controversial topics than the quick-and-dirty Wikipedia links can give, and you don’t have a good town library handy, just search “magical use of ritual language” on Google Scholar. Earlier today (3/24/14) it returned 168,000 results. So even if upwards of 90% of these prove to be some combination of junk or dead links, you’ll find remarkable studies, academic and amateur and much in between. Enough in fact to launch you into a lifetime of fruitful reading and study on just this one topic, should you wish. (See the end of this post for a detailed excerpt of the Wikipedia entry for “magical language.”
All or Nothing
Of course, using ritual language doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” proposition. A few words and phrases can often be sufficient to signal important parts of a ritual, or to heighten the charge of ritual atmosphere. Any decent magical training curriculum will show you this. Like all conscious acts, those performed with intention carry power. (Anyone reading this knows, for instance, the difference between a casually tossed-off “I love you” and the same words said with full attention and feeling. If you don’t, don’t come back here until you do. That part of your life obviously deserves more atttention than this blog.)
As an example of this “ritual sprinkle” approach, here’s an excerpt of the ritual use of Welsh from the “Grand Sword” page of the Gorsedd of the Bards (Museum of Wales online):
One of the Gorsedd’s oldest rites is the ceremony of partly unsheathing the Grand Sword. The Archdruid asks the following questions and the audience replies ‘Heddwch’ (Peace) three times:
‘Y Gwir yn erbyn y Byd, A oes Heddwch? (The Truth against the World, Is there Peace?)
Calon wrth Galon, A oes Heddwch? (Heart to Heart, Is there Peace?)
Gwaedd uwch Adwaedd, A oes Heddwch? (Shout above responding Shout, Is there Peace?)’
Carrying a sword was one of the rites in Iolo Morganwg’s first Gorsedd in 1792. As a pacifist Iolo wanted to emphasise that the Bards met in peace and when a naked sword was placed on the Logan Stone they proceeded to sheath it as a symbol of peace in Gorsedd.
Bardic chair inscription: “the truth against the world”
With no more than this much Welsh in a ritual, or even just Y gwir yn erbyn y Byd [approximately "uh GWEER uhn EHR-been uh BEED"] “the Truth against the World,” you can clearly set apart the language of your rite from ordinary language, and help evoke the heightened state of consciousness characteristic of much (not all) successful ritual.
Benefits of Ritual Language
If you want the John F. Kennedy version – “what ritual language can do for you” – here’s a start.
An FAQ of the Latin Liturgy Association site lists several “important benefits of using Latin” as a “sacral” language, including its close association with worship, as with the Arabic of the Qur’an, the Sanskrit of Hinduism and the Hebrew of Judaism. It also “helps us overcome limitations of time and place” and “participate in the universal reality of the Catholic Church, linking us with the generations” who preceded us. As the language of a sacred musical tradition, it also gives access to the plainsong and chant of the Church.
So Why Use a Distinct Ritual Language?
OK, you get that ritual and ritual language are powerful and widespread. But why not keep it to your own native tongue and skip the difficulty of learning another language besides? Who has the time for studying and mastering a dedicated language? Isn’t a dedicated practice more important? Aren’t ritual and worship and devotion in [insert your language here] better than none at all? This cry of the heart has a strong appeal. Its human roots are ancient. Huston Smith in his The World’s Religions (p. 34) cites a Hindu prayer, noting, “Even village priests will frequently open their temple ceremonies with the following beloved invocation:
O Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations:
Thou art everywhere, but I worship you here;
Thou art without form, but I worship you in these forms;
Thou needest no praise, yet I offer you these prayers and salutations,
Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations.
Surely this is justification, if indeed we need any? You may have seen this prayer incorporated into rituals as part of the reach toward the divine – I have. Of all human failings, surely what language we use in our quest must rank low on the scale of such things?
M. Isadora Forrest notes in her book Isis Magic, “Isis of the Ten Thousand Names provided Her ancient worshippers with a broad range of Divine aspects, functions and affinities” (pg. 8). So if we can approach spirit or divine realm using our own names for it, what’s the need for a separate ritual language? Can’t we reach and communicate with the Goddess [substitute your own preferred name here] using what is, after all, our “mother tongue,” the speech that is most intimate to us? Isn’t this language therefore among the most valid of tools we can use, if we wish to contact and plunge into the Otherworld, the divine realm? It reaches and extends from the heart.
Well, just like you generally appreciate home-baked over store-bought, deities show preferences. Among them are offerings, names and languages. That doesn’t mean that English or whatever your native language is won’t “work” as you lay the roses, pour the mead, light the cedar incense, offer the myrrh or dragonsblood or cinnamon, but it does mean that a more immediate connection is one benefit and advantage of using a ritual language. In part it’s a matter of dedication and devotion. Our efforts please the divine; as someone said – I’m quoting badly here – “the gods enjoy the taste of human sweat in their offerings.”
A tradition can have profound impact on our spiritual paths.Forrest observes (again, insert [your preferred designation] for “Goddess” and “Isis” as needed):
By examining the evidence this tradition has left us, modern devotees of the Goddess can be connected with and find inspiration in the ancient worship … We can discover the traditional ways Isis was worshipped and learn how her Worshhippers thought, talked and taught about her. In the stories they told, the religious purposes they agreed upon … we can follow the path of a very ancient religious tradition that can connnect us to our spiritual ancestors. By using the symbols they used and found meaningful– and by finding our own meaning in them – we are empowered by tradition. It can guide us, inpsire us, explain things to us. It provides potent archetypal symbols, sanctified by centuries of use, energized by the meaning invested in them. The devotion of thousands upon thousands of Isis worshippers before us can provide a path we can walk and a context for our own relationship
with the divine. Thus “tradition can be an extremely valuable tool of connection with the Divine; yet it need not constrain us. Human religious history is a history of change” (9).
Ritual Language and Two Kinds of “Users”
The use of a special ritual language concerns two groups of ritualists in different ways. For writers or composers of rituals and liturgies, the language must be “composable in.” That is, it shouldn’t be so difficult to use that the creation of new rituals and liturgies is so challenging only a few can pull it off. This means that those who know the language can use it creatively. Need a new handfasting ritual, or a rite to plant potatoes? No problem! This also means that the first group can make the ritual accessible to the second and much larger group, the users or participants in rituals and liturgies. This latter groups includes not only the “usual suspects,” the regular participants in rituals, but also any visitors (assuming your rituals with a ritual language are open to them), and readers of any media like your group’s website that explains or presents rituals to a wider audience.
Which Ritual Language?
There are currently some 6000 human languages on the planet, though the number is decreasing dramatically. However, Celtic-inspired Druids need not sort through them; under a dozen ready and suitable options present themselves. (If you want to focus on Asatru and other similar northwestern European Heathen traditions, replace Celtic with Germanic tongues. Likewise, substitute some Slavic options, if you’re into Baltic Heathenism like Romuva, or Hellenismos if you’re a Greek Pagan.etc.).
Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Breton, Cornish, Manx. Throw in Proto-Celtic if you wish. All but the latter have communities of speakers, grammars and dictionaries and various learning resources. (Proto-Celtic lets you try out an ancestral speech in a form that’s still being reconstructed as we speak. Enough exists to compose in it – barely. See the next section for more possibilities.) Admittedly you’re most likely to encounter the modern forms of these, but dive into the modern form, and you can begin to make use of preserved older forms in manuscripts, chronicles, epics and legends, rich with symbolism and myth for rituals, prayers, chants, song lyrics, etc. as yet unborn, unwritten, unchanted, unsung.
Game of Thrones
Another option lies in the adaptation of a Celtic language to your purposes. Ritual language is already heightened, altered, shifted. Well, a conlang or constructed language may fit your needs. (For a detailed look at some possibilities, visit Mark Rosenfelder’s online Language Construction Kit.) Conlangers have been modifying adapting, regularizing, extending and creating out of whole cloth an astonishing range of languages. A significant number of them exist in forms complete enough to use for ritual. And you can actually commission a language from the Language Creation Society. You too can do just as the producers of Game of Thrones have done with Dothraki, whose creator David Peterson has created other languages. Visit his website for a sampling.
Perplexed by the contradiction between authentic or historical and concocted or created ex nihilo? You’ve arrived at the classic a priori versus a posteriori nexus – a lively point of debate in the conlang community.
J M Greer
Ends and Beginnings
Had enough? Need a break? Or want to sample the sounds of some 30 European languages? Below is a Youtube clip featuring Celtic, Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages, along with Greek, Albanian and Hungarian to round out the linguistic variety of Europe (see the note below for a complete list of languages and approximate times). You may have visceral reactions to accents, pitches, sounds. I urge you to make note of them. See if you can get down in words what it is that appeals or doesn’t appeal to you in the sounds and overall sprachgefühl, a wonderful German word that literally means “speech-feeling” — the character of a language. This can be helpful as you consider the sound of any ritual language you might want to use. It may also prove useful if you’re wondering what languages you might want to study in the future (if you’re following the language learning advice of John Michael Greer in his talk “A Magical Education”). And there’s a chance it may spark a dream of a past life when you may have spoken a form of one of these languages yourself.
Here’s the 32-language video:
A Next Step
In DRL – A Druid Ritual Language — Part 3, I’ll look specifically at Welsh and then at a couple of conlangs as candidates for ritual languages.
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Images: Huston Smith; Game of Thrones; all/nothing; Danaelect4; J M Greer; bardic chair.
From the Wikipedia entry for “Magical Language“, accessed 3/23/14, which I cite below for its interest:
The performance of magic almost always involves the use of language. Whether spoken out loud or unspoken, words are frequently used to access or guide magical power. In “The Magical Power of Words” (1968) S. J. Tambiah argues that the connection between language and magic is due to a belief in the inherent ability of words to influence the universe. Bronisław Malinowski … suggests that this belief is an extension of man’s basic use of language to describe his surroundings, in which “the knowledge of the right words, appropriate phrases and the more highly developed forms of speech, gives man a power over and above his own limited field of personal action.”Magical speech is therefore a ritual act and is of equal or even greater importance to the performance of magic than non-verbal acts.
Not all speech is considered magical. Only certain words and phrases or words spoken in a specific context are considered to have magical power. Magical language … is distinct from scientific language because it is emotive and it converts words into symbols for emotions; whereas in scientific language words are tied to specific meanings and refer to an objective external reality. Magical language is therefore particularly adept at constructing metaphors that establish symbols and link magical rituals to the world.
Malinowski argues that “the language of magic is sacred, set and used for an entirely different purpose to that of ordinary life.” The two forms of language are differentiated through word choice, grammar, style, or by the use of specific phrases or forms: spells, songs, blessings, or chants, for example. Sacred modes of language often employ archaic words and forms in an attempt to invoke the purity or “truth” of a religious or a cultural “golden age”. The use of Hebrew in Judaism is an example.
Another potential source of the power of words is their secrecy and exclusivity. Much sacred language is differentiated enough from common language that it is incomprehensible to the majority of the population and it can only be used and interpreted by specialized practitioners (magicians, priests, shamans, even mullahs). In this respect, Tambiah argues that magical languages violate the primary function of language: communication. Yet adherents of magic are still able to use and to value the magical function of words by believing in the inherent power of the words themselves and in the meaning that they must provide for those who do understand them. This leads Tambiah to conclude that “the remarkable disjunction between sacred and profane language which exists as a general fact is not necessarily linked to the need to embody sacred words in an exclusive language.”
Video roster of languages and times; “FSI + a number” refers to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute ranking of difficulty for an English speaker, 1 being easier, and higher numbers being comparatively more difficult/requiring more hours of study:
0:00 Serbian—FSI 3
0:21 British English
1:03 Albanian—FSI 4/FSI 2
1:18 Finnish—FSI 4
1:46 Slovakian—FSI 4
2:25 German– FSI 2
2:56 Macedonian—FSI 4
3:26 Portuguese—FSI 1
3:54 Ukrainian—FSI 4
4:19 Croatian—FSI 4
4:50 Moldovan—not listed
6:14 Russian—FSI 4
6:52 Italian—FSI 1
7:22 Slovenian—FSI 4
7:49 Danish—FSI 1
8:22 Polish—FSI 4
8:44 Romanian—FSI 1
9:13 French—FSI 1
10:00 Byelarussian—not listed
10:24 Bulgarian—FSI 4
10:54 Greek—FSI 4
11:22 Czech—FSI 4
11:52 Dutch—FSI 1
12:35 Bosnian—FSI 4
13:00 Spanish (Castilian) – FSI 1
13:30 Estonian—FSI 4
14:02 Norwegian—FSI 1
14:53 Lithuanian—FSI 4
15:20 Irish Gaelic—not listed
15:52 Latvian—FSI 4
16:26 Icelandic—FSI 4
16:52 Hungarian—FSI 4
17:30 slovenian—FSI 4
[Part 2 | Part 3]
Ritual Language and the Case of Latin
Many spiritual and religious traditions feature a special language used for ritual purposes. The most visible example in the West is Latin. The Latin Mass remains popular, and though the mid-1960s reforms of Vatican II allowed the use of local vernacular languages for worship, they never prohibited Latin. For some Catholics, the use of vernacular reduced the mystery, the beauty and ultimately, in some sense, the sacredness of the rites. If you visit an Orthodox Christian or Jewish service, you may encounter other languages. Within an hour’s drive of my house in southern Vermont, you can encounter Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic and Tibetan used in prayer and ritual.
Language as Sacrament
The heightened language characteristic of ritual, such as prayer and chant, can be a powerful shaper of consciousness. The 5-minute Vedic Sanskrit video below can begin to approximate for one watching it a worship experience of sound and image and sensory engagement that transcends mere linguistic meaning. The rhythmic chanting, the ritual fire, the sacrificial gathering, the flowers and other sacred offerings, the memory of past rituals, the complex network of many kinds of meaning all join to form a potentially powerful ritual experience. What the ritual “means” is only partly mediated by the significance of the words. Language used in ritual in such ways transcends verbal meaning and becomes Word — sacrament as language, language as sacrament — a way of manifesting, expressing, reaching, participating in the holy.
And depending on your age and attention at the time, you may recall the renewed popularity of Gregorian chant starting two decades ago in 1994, starting with the simply-titled Chant, a collection by a group of Benedictines.
Issues with Ritual Language
One great challenge is to keep ritual and worship accessible. Does the experience of mystery and holiness need, or benefit from, the aid of a special ritual language? Do mystery and holiness deserve such language as one sign of respect we can offer? Should we expect to learn a new language, or special form of our own language, as part of our dedication and worship? Is hearing and being sacramentally influenced by the language enough, even if we don’t “understand” it? These aren’t always easy questions to answer.
“The King’s English”
For English-speaking Christians and for educated speakers of English in general, the King James Bible* continues to exert remarkable influence more than 400 years after its publication in 1611. What is now the early modern English grammar and vocabulary of Elizabethan England, in the minds of many, contribute to the “majesty of the language,” setting it apart from daily speech in powerful and useful ways. Think of the Lord’s Prayer, with its “thy” and “thine” and “lead us not”: the rhythms of liturgical — in this case, older — English are part of modern Christian worship for many, though more recent translations have also made their way into common use. A surpriing number of people make decisions on which religious community to join on the basis of what language(s) are, or aren’t, used in worship.
Druid and Pagan Practice
When it comes to Druid practice (and Pagan practice more generally), attitudes toward special language, like attitudes towards much else, vary considerably. Some find anything that excludes full participation in ritual to be an unnecessary obstacle to be avoided. Of course, the same argument can be made for almost any aspect of Druid practice, or spiritual practice in general. Does the form of any rite inevitably exclude, if it doesn’t speak to all potential participants? If I consider my individual practice, it thrives in part because of improvisation, personal preference and spontaneity. It’s tailor-made for me, open to inspiration at the moment, though still shaped by group experience and the forms of OBOD ritual I have both studied and participated in. Is that exclusionary?
Unless they’re Catholic or particularly “high”-church Anglican/Episcopalian, many Westerners, including aspiring Druids, are often unacquainted with ritual. What is it? Why do it? How should or can you do it? What options are there? ADF offers some helpful guidance about ritual more generally in their Druid Ritual Primer page. The observations there are well worth reflecting on, if only to clarify your own sensibility and ideas. To sum up the first part all too quickly: Anyone can worship without clergy. That said, clergy often are the ones who show up! In a world of time and space, ritual has basic limits, like size and start time. Ignore them and the ritual fails, at least for you. Change, even or especially in ritual, is good and healthy. However, “With all this change everyone must still be on the same sheet of music.” As with so much else, what you get from ritual depends on what you give. And finally, people can and will make mistakes. In other words, there’s no “perfect” ritual — or perfect ritualists, either.
(Re)Inventing Ritual Wheels
Let me cite another specific example for illustration, to get at some of these issues in a slightly different way. In the recent Druidcast 82 interview, host Damh the Bard interviews OBOD’s Chosen Chief, Philip Carr-Gomm, who notes that some OBOD-trained Druids seem compelled to write their own liturgies rather than use OBOD rites and language. While he notes that “hiving off” from an existing group is natural and healthy, he asks why we shouldn’t retain beautiful language where it already exists. He also observes that Druidry appeals to many because it coincides with a widespread human tendency in this present period to seek out simplicity. This quest for simplicity has ritual consequences, one of which is that such Druidry can also help to heal the Pagan and Non-Pagan divide by not excluding the Christian Druid or Buddhist Druid, who can join rituals and rub shoulders with their “hard polytheist” and atheist brothers and sisters. (Yes, more exclusionary forms of Druidry do exist, as they do in any human endeavor, but thankfully they aren’t the mainstream.)
About this attitude towards what in other posts I’ve termed OGRELD, a belief in “One Genuine Real Live Druidry,” Carr-Gomm notes, “The idea that you can’t mix practices from different sources or traditions comes from an erroneous idea of purity.” Yes, we should be mindful of cultural appropriation. Of course, as he continues, “Every path is a mixture already … To quote Ronald Hutton, mention purity and ‘you can hear the sound of jackboots and smell the disinfectant.’” An obsession with that elusive One Genuine Real Live Whatever often misses present possibilities for some mythical, fundamentalist Other-time Neverland and Perfect Practice Pleasing to The Powers-That-Be. That said, “there are certain combinations that don’t work.” But these are better found out in practice than prescribed (or proscribed) up front, out of dogma rather than experience. In Druidry there’s a “recognition that there is an essence that we share,” which includes a common core of practices and values.
As a result, to give another instance, Carr-Gomm says, “If you take Druidry and Wicca, some people love to combine them and find they fit rather well together,” resulting in practices like Druidcraft. After all, boxes are for things, not people. Damh the Bard concurs at that point in the interview, asserting that, “To say you can’t [mix or combine elements] is a fake boundary.”
Yet facing this openness and Universalist tendency in much modern Druidry is the challenge of particularity. When I practice Druidry, it’s my experience last week, yesterday and tomorrow of the smell of sage smoke, the taste of mead, wine or apple juice, the sounds of drums, song, chant, the feel of wind or sun or rain on my face, the presence of others or Others, Spirit, awen, the god(s) in the rite. The Druid order ADF, after all, is named Ár nDraíocht Féin — the three initials often rendered in English as “A Druid Fellowship” but literally meaning “Our Own Druidry” in Gaelic.
A Human Undersong
Where to go from here? Carr-Gomm notes what Henry David Thoreau called an “undersong” inside all of us, underlying experience. “We sense intuitively that there’s this undersong,” says Carr-Gomm. “It’s your song, inside you. The Order and the course and the trainings [of groups like OBOD] — it’s all about helping you to find that song. It’s universal.” As humans we usually strive to increase such access-points to the universal whenever historical, political and cultural conditions are favorable, as they have been for the last several decades in the West.
Paradoxes of Particularity
Yet the point remains that each of us finds such access in the particulars of our experience. (Christians call it the “scandal of particularity”; in their case, the difficulty of their doctrine that one being, Jesus, is the sole saviour for all people — the single manifestation of the divine available to us.**) And the use of heightened ritual language can be one of those “particulars,” a doorway that can also admittedly exclude, an especially powerful access point, because even ordinary language mediates so much human reality. We quite literally say who and what we are. The stroke victim who cannot speak or speaks only with difficulty, the aphasic, the abused and isolated child who never acquires language beyond rudimentary words or gestures, the foreigner who never learns the local tongue — all demonstrate the degree to which the presence or absence of language enfolds us in or excludes us from human community and culture. And that includes spirituality, where — side by side with art and music — we are at our most human in every sense.
In the second post in this series, I’ll shift modes, moving from the context I’ve begun to outline here, and look at some specific candidates for a DRL — a Druidic Ritual Language.
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Images: Tridentine Mass; OBOD Star and Stone Fellowship rite.
*Go here for a higher-resolution image of the title page of the first King James Bible pictured above.
**In a 2012 post, Patheos blogger Tim Suttle quotes Franciscan friar and Father Richard Rohr at length on the force of particularity in a Christian context. If Christian imagery and language still work for you at all, you may find his words useful and inspiring. Wonder is at the heart of it. Here Rohr talks about Christmas, incarnation and access to the divine in Christian terms, but pointing to an encounter with the holy — the transforming experience behind why people seek out the holy in the first place:
A human woman is the mother of God, and God is the son of a human mother!
Do we have any idea what this sentence means, or what it might imply? Is it really true? If it is, then we are living in an entirely different universe than we imagine, or even can imagine. If the major division between Creator and creature can be overcome, then all others can be overcome too. To paraphrase Oswald Chambers “this is a truth that dumbly struggles in us for utterance!” It is too much to be true and too good to be true. So we can only resort to metaphors, images, poets, music, and artists of every stripe.
I have long felt that Christmas is a feast which is largely celebrating humanity’s unconscious desire and goal. Its meaning is too much for the rational mind to process, so God graciously puts this Big Truth on a small stage so that we can wrap our mind and heart around it over time. No philosopher would dare to imagine “the materialization of God,” so we are just presented with a very human image of a poor woman and her husband with a newly born child. (I am told that the Madonna is by far the most painted image in Western civilization. It heals all mothers and all children of mothers, if we can only look deeply and softly.)
Pope Benedict, who addressed 250 artists in the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo’s half-naked and often grotesque images, said quite brilliantly, “An essential function of genuine beauty is that it gives humanity a healthy shock!” And then he went on to quote Simone Weil who said that “Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is in fact possible.” Today is our beautiful feast of a possible and even probable Incarnation!
If there is one moment of beauty, then beauty can indeed exist on this earth. If there is one true moment of full Incarnation, then why not Incarnation everywhere? The beauty of this day is enough healthy shock for a lifetime, which leaves us all dumbly struggling for utterance.
Updated (minor editing) 1 April 2014
Almost a month ago now I got the nudge to visit the major peaks in the area — Monadnock (NH), Hogback and Ascutney (VT) – starting on Alban Eilir, the spring equinox. Energy-lines and Native American paths have been in my thoughts since the new year, and yesterday I climbed through snow and ice to within bowshot of Monadnock’s stony peak at 3165 feet. The mountain is a New Hampshire state park, and lies a short distance north of the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border, southeast of Keene and west of Jaffrey, NH.
Monadnock, or Grand Monadnock, to distinguish it from other lesser monadnocks in the region, has the reputation for being one of the most-climbed peaks in the world. Thogh my wife and I have lived off and on in the area since 1991, I’d never visited. From what I saw yesterday, a summer climb would still be strenuous, but I’m glad that with the ice and cold, I had the mountain nearly all to myself. Or, more accurately, the mountain had me. All wild places have a presence, and the berg-geist or “mountain spirit” of Monadnock made itself known most of all in a listening silence. I met just six other people, and all in the first half hour of my climb. All were descending. After that, no one but the mountain and me.
The first leg of the southeast ascent rises gradually, just enough to get you conscious of your breathing. The temp at this point was in the low 40s — it just looks colder in these shots.
The new season really is here, though a 4″ fall of heavy wet snow two days ago seemed to give the lie to that. When I left the ranger station at the foot, the sun shone through scattered clouds. Ice doesn’t rule everything any more. A small spring had broken free of ice and ran across the trail.
The climb begins in earnest once the trail splits into White Cross and White Dot. The trail map showed similar elevations and roughly equal distances, so I opted for White Cross.
Besides, to paraphrase Frost, “it was snowy and waited there.” As the map warned, “trails are not necessarily marked for winter use.” Painted arrows and keys on the rocks often lay below the snowline. Markers on a few exposed boulders showed and the prints of those ahead of me provided enough guidance. But I was mindful of the sky — a quick change could easily leave me lost in fog or snow showers, as the map also warned. It was easier, not just prudent, to pay attention, because I was alone.
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Many states in the U.S. still retain versions of Native American place-names. Vermont and New Hampshire bristle with them: Bomoseen, Skatutakee, Memphremagog, Ascutney, Monadnock. The Wikipedia entry obliges with the following information about the mountain’s name:
… “monadnock” is an Abenaki-derived word used to describe a mountain. Loosely translated it means “mountain that stands alone,” although the exact meaning of the word (what kind of mountain) is uncertain. The term was adopted by early settlers of southern New Hampshire and later by American geologists as an alternative term for an inselberg or isolated mountain.
As I climbed, the temperature dropped at least 15 degrees. No birds here, unlike at the foot where a few sang tentatively overhead. The higher elevation showed visibly in pines coated with ice.
I didn’t wear crampons or any special footwear beyond a pair of good winter boots. Only in a few places was ice a problem. The snowfall of the day before was a gift — it coated the ice of thaws and freezes beneath it, and made for easier going. The ascent continued to sharpen, and I remembered bones and muscles I’d forgotten about since late fall.
Vistas offered compensation. Here’s the view to the west and south, during a particularly clear interval.
White Cross and White Dot rejoin about half a mile below the peak. I was tired by now, though I chuckled at the mixed message of this sign:
It was soon time to descend. The rock of the final 500 feet was too slick, the weather worsened by the minute, and leaving now would bring me to the foot again before twilight. Here is the peak over the treetops.
I’m including this final image, though it’s blurred, because this is the highest I climbed, and it captures the berg-geist in winter: I have been here a long time, and I am still here. You are flesh — I am stone.
Little ceremony – that wasn’t my intent when I climbed. A few words and gestures to the trees, the sky, the rocks, the snow and brisk fresh air. The mountain, always answering, said nothing.
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