Archive for the ‘ritual language’ Category

Creativity’s Messy–1: The Druid’s Prayer

In previous posts [A Celtic Conlang |Invoke for a Tongue 12 | Druid Ritual Language 123 ] I’ve written about the inspiration and the rudiments of creating a ritual Celtic language. And one of the first obvious places to try it out is with the Druid’s Prayer.

(As a small offering, this is in partial repayment of a sacred vow to Brighid and Ogma, mentioned in “Invoke for a Tongue” above.)

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June trail on Mount Ascutney to the north

The prayer’s widely known, though it hasn’t yet fulfilled the preamble it’s often given in OBOD ritual — “Let us join in the prayer that unites all Druids”. Yet the energy released just by saying those words (preamble, or prayer, or both), even if they’re not “true”, deserves a separate meditation all its own: “the truth against the world”. (In Welsh, that’s y gwir yn erbyn y byd. And it sounds good in both languages. But what is it?)

You can find a few other forms of the prayer at this link, but here’s the OBOD version I hear most often in the States, so I’ll work with it, because it’s familiar.

Grant, O Spirit, Thy protection;
And in protection, strength;
And in strength, understanding;
And in understanding, knowledge;
And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice;
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it;
And in that love, the love of all existences;
And in the love of all existences,
the love of spirit and all goodness.

In OBOD group ritual, “Spirit” works for most of us as an acceptable choice in the first line, among other versions of the prayer that offer “God, Goddess”, etc. — one of which we may prefer for private rites. (I tend to sing the awen much more often than I offer any sort of prayer, but that’s my animism talking. As verbal as I often am, a non-verbal approach short-circuits a lot of my mental crap and attunes me more quickly than most “talky” methods can.)

With some basic knowledge of Celtic languages*, I can set myself the challenge of respecting the sensibility and intent of this prayer as I “other” it into a fledgling ritual Celtic language. For a start, I’ve got an approximate dozen words to work on, most of them nouns: all, existence, goodness, grant, justice, knowledge, love, protection, spirit, strength, the, understanding, and your (thy). And that’s not even counting the title of the prayer, which in Welsh is Gweddi’r Derwydd “Druid’s Prayer” or Gweddi’r Orsedd “Gorseth Prayer”.

One of the great gifts of this kind of David-Peterson Game-of-Thrones constructed-languages special-interest “nerdiness-on-steroids” activity is that it compels one to look very closely at the words we say year in and year out. Great gobs of assumptions, some inherited — no surprise — from Christianity, pervade the Druid’s Prayer: does Spirit grant anything in response to this prayer, and if so, under what conditions? What does “protection” mean, concretely? What kind of “strength” are we asking for? How are “knowledge” and “understanding” different? (They’re tricky to translate!) “Justice” means different things to different people — is it the same thing we mean by “equality”? Or something else? How many of us actually do “love justice” in any useful sense, if we look at the world right now as any sort of evidence? And “existences”? Is that the same thing as “anything that exists”? Then why not just say “all things”? And so on.

Now that I’ve irritated at least some of my readers in the process of unraveling this prayer, and emptied it of almost any meaning until I can answer even some of these questions for myself, let’s move on to unmaking it in another mode — everyone’s favorite torture from secondary school: grammar!

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Because we’ve got a few Celtic grammatical processes to work out, too, for our language: (1) the imperative of grant, which is simply a more formal word for give; (2) the vocative or “direct address” form for spirit, rendered above as “O Spirit”, which can mutate the following noun (one of my students was named Megan; she hated that in Irish her name became, more or less, a Wegan “O Megan”); (3) any grammatical changes that happen to nouns following a possessive pronoun, here thy, or your; and (4) any changes that happen to nouns in phrases like “in protection”, or after other nouns, like “knowledge of justice”. (For those of you in the know, these are the famed Celtic mutations that bedevil the learner.)

But for the purposes of the draft below, I’m ignoring all four of these. Time for tweaking later.

Pesad an Derwidhe

Ri, a’h Isprid, do iscod;
ha’n iscod, nerth;
ha’n nerth, doithus,
ha’n doithus, gothved,
ha’n gothved, gothved cowireth,
ha’n gothved cowireth, i cared,
ha o’i cared, cared pob an bode,
ha’n cared pob an bode, cared Isprid
ha pob an mat.

This works out, more-or-less literally, to the following: Prayer of the Druids. Give, o Spirit, your shielding, and in shielding, strength; and in strength, wisdom; and in wisdom, knowledge; and in knowledge, knowledge of fairness; and in knowledge of fairness, its love, and out of its love, love of all worlds/existences, and in love of all of worlds/existences, love of Spirit, and of all goodness.

I know you have a range of reactions to this: (1) Cool! (2) Uh, what? (3) Why go to the trouble of making and teaching yourself a fake Celtic language when six real ones already exist? (4) Does Spirit care what language we use? (5) You’ve changed some of the meanings in the prayer. (6) Get a life! (7) I love this! And so on.

(1) Ah, you too suffer from the same pleasant affliction I do regarding language — this stuff is awesome, our most amazing creation ever!

(2) The tryptophan still hasn’t worn off yet. This is just a dream. You’ll wake up in a few more hours and everything will be fine. Stay away from any more turkey, though.

(3) Only six? There are several other Celtic conlangs out there. The more the better, I say. And if you want to make one, you need to know something about “real” Celtic languages. Besides, if I can speak it, and you could if you wanted, and we could pray in it, and find meaning and comfort using it, what exactly makes it fake?

(4) Yes and no. Unverified Personal Gnosis says it can swing both ways. Spirit doesn’t care, and spirits may care deeply.

(5) Meanings change every time we mean them. Take a look at the different versions of the prayer. I’m still reflecting on “God, impart Thy strength; And in strength, power to suffer; And to suffer for the truth …”

(6) I’ve had several so far, and will probably have several more.

(7) You sound like you’re a happy person in general.

I’m copying this prayer into my day-book, so that I’ll have it on hand at my bedside, and I can think and dream with it, trying it out. Already it feels more usable to me than either the English or Welsh version. And if I use it and gain benefit from it — if it sparks further development of this language for prayer and ritual — that’s a definite good, to my thinking.

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*some basic knowledge of Celtic languages: If you have a gift for languages, you can pick up a linguistic knowledge of one in a handful of hours — a sense of what the basic word order is, where the complexities lie, points of potential common ground with any other language you may know, and so on. It’s like visiting a city in a foreign country with a good map and helpful suggestions from natives: an afternoon can give you a general sense of how the main streets lie, what some of the prime tourist spots are, where to eat, how to “sample” the city without pretending to the intimate knowledge only a native or long-time resident can acquire fully.

Third Time’s the Charm

What follows below is just my end of an interesting exchange in a Facebook Druidry group in response to a post of this article of a little over a year ago from the Irish Times: “A Magical Vision is Hidden in the Irish Language — We Need to Rediscover It”.

While I have only a nodding acquaintance with Irish (my chief interest is in the Welsh and the Cornish of some of my ancestors), the Romantic in me says Yes! Anything to re-enchant the cosmos! Some languages ARE inherently more evocative than others, whether from their histories, their associations, or other causes.

If, in an alternate world, Irish were the language of the oppressors, that might not be so; we then might turn to English and marvel at its treasure-trove of words like glitter, gleam, twilight, sparkle, gloaming, sussuration, foresight, insight, hindsight, learn by heart, lore, soothe, cleanse, bask, glean. Or its poetic names for things: bone-house for skeleton, day’s eye for the daisy; heart’s ease, love-lies-bleeding, baby’s breath; coltsfoot, lady’s mantle … Or its names for a host of non-physical creatures: basilisk, ghoul, ghost, unicorn, wyvern, griffin, manticore, fae, undine, sylph, brownie, werewolf

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Bridge near a community stone circle in Northern Vermont

Meanwhile, however, the linguist in me (two Master’s degrees — don’t ask!) notes that languages struggling to keep a foothold in people’s lives tend to receive this ‘hidden wisdom, magical vision, etc.’ treatment in the press. The same is true for the traditions and languages of Native peoples here in the States: in a reversal of centuries of discrimination, the vision of the Other is now superior to what the dominant culture/language/people know or understand. (Older languages in general seem to preserve evidence of more subtle ways of looking at the cosmos that we have tended to discount and cast off in our mad rush into modernity. Old English itself offers marvelous linguistic resources for a Pagan way of viewing the world, to give just one example.)

My third reaction — because the resolution of opposites through a missing third element is always good Druid (magical) practice — says that these two perspectives can be combined to our benefit. Learn the language – in this case, Irish — and then I will be more qualified to determine for myself if such claims (and counter-claims) are true.

Meanwhile, I can enjoy them anyway and let them set me challenges I can choose, if I wish or am shown by the gods, to accept.

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Retrospective

It’s the end of the year, and like you may be, I’m taking a look back. If A Druid Way inspires or helps or informs others, I’m grateful. My intent is to be a witness to the journey – quite as quirky as yours is, I imagine – opinionated, cranky, full of starts and stops, false steps and helpful insights, along with the odd cul-de-sac, or three, where the unexpected rots, or blooms. That’s where I want to keep my focus.

That’s said, if others opt to read what you write (and why else do people blog, rather than keep a private journal?), you’re no longer talking only to yourself. Obsessing about how to increase your page views isn’t normally conducive to the flowering of intuition and creativity. But knowing what others find interesting can serve as a guide for future topics that may still have some juice in them.

Here, then, counting down to number 1, are the ten most popular posts since I started this blog over three years ago in October 2011.

10. Voices of Modern Druidry. “Druidry is a lively and growing phenomenon, so the following list is by its nature incomplete … Included in the roster of people below are references and links to several of the most visible and influential Druid organizations active today.”

9. DRL – A Druid Ritual Language, Part 1. “Many spiritual and religious traditions feature a special language used for ritual purposes … The heightened language characteristic of ritual, such as prayer and chant, can be a powerful shaper of consciousness.”

8. The Fires of May, Green Dragons and Talking Peas. “Ah, Fifth Month, you’ve arrived.  In addition to providing striking images like this one, the May holiday of Beltane on or around May 1st is one of the four great fire festivals of the Celtic world and of revival Paganism.  Along with Imbolc, Lunasa and Samhain, Beltane endures in many guises.”

7. Opening the Gates: A Review of McCarthy’s Magic of the North Gate. McCarthy’s book is “characteristically humble, wise, unexpectedly funny, and profound – qualities too often lacking in books on magic. Add to these its emphasis on being of service to the land, and it is altogether a valuable resource.”

6. The Four Powers – Know, Dare, Will, Keep Silent – Part One. “‘All I know is a door into the dark,’ says Seamus Heaney in the first line of his poem “The Forge.”  In some way that’s where we all begin. At three, four, five years old, some things come into our world already bright, illuminated, shining, on fire even.  The day is aflame with sun, the golden hours pass until nightfall, and then come darkness and sleep and dreaming.  We wander through our early days, learning this world, so familiar-strange all at once.  We grow inwardly too, discovering trust, betrayal, lying, love, fear, the pleasure of imagination, the difference between visible and invisible worlds.  Which ones do people talk about, admit to themselves?  Which ones do people around us ignore, or tell us don’t matter?”

5. East Coast Gathering 2012. A good Gathering or Festival “offers a chance for Druids to walk among friends, attend workshops, and” — in our case — “(re)connect with a beloved landscape in northeastern Pennsylvania.”

4. A Portable Altar, a Handful of Stones. “An altar is an important element of very many spiritualities around the world.  It gives a structure to space, and orients the practitioner, the worshiper, the participant (and any observers) to objects, symbols and energies.  It’s a spiritual signpost, a landmark for identifying and entering sacred space. It accomplishes this without words, simply by existing.”

3. About Initiation. “With energies flowing around us from so many end-of-year holidays and celebrations, it seemed fitting to think and write about initiation. It’s one more piece of a Religious Operating System (ROS), it’s an important key to Druidry and — most importantly — it’s something we all experience.  For good reason, then, the subject cuts a large swath through spiritual, religious and magical thought and practice.  As author Isaac Bashevis Singer opens his book The Chosen, ‘Beginnings are difficult times.’  That’s one reason New Year’s resolutions often end up on the cutting room floor of the film version of our lives.  (Some ways to keep them alive and well and not merely part of the special extended version of our lives that may not see wide release into the “real” world will be the subject of a post upcoming in the next few days.)”

2. Shinto—Way of the Gods. “Almost two decades ago now, in the early 1990s, my wife and I lived for a year in Hikone, a medium-sized city in central Japan, about an hour’s train ride north of Kyoto.  The city’s most visible claim to fame is Hikone Castle, a 380-year-old wooden fortress that dominates the downtown skyline.  But the most  enduring memory I took from Japan and have never forgotten is the profound impression of its many Shinto shrines — roughly 80,000 of them, according to various sources — that dot the landscape and invite the casual visitor as well as the reverent worshiper.”

1. Fake Druidry and OGRELD. “I’m a fake Druid.  So is everyone else who names Druidry as the path they walk.  And I’ve come to love it.”

Thank you, everyone, for reading and following, for your comments, for over 21,000 page views and 500 likes, and for the encouragement these give me to keep exploring.  (Early) Happy New Year to you all!

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O Bríd and Oghma, I Invoke You for a Tongue

[Updated 26 July 2020]

[A Celtic Conlang |Invoke for a Tongue 12 | Druid Ritual Language 123 ]

 

brigidscross

Brigid’s Cross: Crosóg Bhríde

For the gift of speech already, I thank you.

For the gift of a Celtic tongue I will make,

let my request be also my gift to you in return:

the sound of awen in another tongue, kindred

to those you once heard from ancestors

of spirit. Wisdom in words, wrought for ready use.

May your inspiration guide heart and hand,

mind and mouth, spirit and speech.

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The six living insular Celtic languages — Welsh, Breton, Cornish*, Manx*, Irish and Gaelic — have survived (*or been revived) against often harsh and long odds. I won’t go into the historical challenges that the Celtic tongues share with most minority languages. And I’m not even considering any of the extinct continental Celtic tongues like Gaulish, Galatian or Lepontic.

OgmapxSuffice it to say that not one of the six living Celtic tongues is secure enough that its advocates can relax into anything resembling the ease of speakers of a world language like English. So why not learn one of these endangered languages (or revive Galatian)? After all, with such knowledge comes the ability to experience a living Celtic culture from the inside, as well as gain access in the original languages to texts that nourish Druid practice and thought. One more speaker is one more voice against linguistic and cultural extinction. In the title and first section above I invoke Brighid/Bríd and Ogma/Oghma, to give the ancient and modern Irish forms of their names. With the experiences of many contemporary and ancient polytheists in mind, I can say with some confidence that the gods honor those who go to the trouble to learn the old languages and speak to them using even a little of the ancestral tongues.

Or if not one of the living Celtic tongues, then how about one of the Celtic conlangs that already exist? Arvorec, Kaledonag, Galathach and others wait in the wings, in varying states of development. They could provide a ready foundation to build on — a foundation already laid.

Why not use one of them? In part out of respect for their makers, who may not want their creations associated with Druidry. Arvorec, to focus on just one for a moment, is already part of the conlang community of Ill Bethisad, and has its own con-culture (and even con-religion — An Graveth, a cousin to Druidry). In part — a significant part for me — as a Bardic offering to the gods invoked here: gods esteem the taste of human sweat. Salt flavors the sacrifice. And for the very human reason that when we invest time and energy in something, we often value it more, and can draw on dedication, creative momentum, pride, inspiration, desire and love to see it through. If a Celtic language is not my mother tongue, then let it be a foster-mother. Let this tongue be one I have helped craft from the shapes and sounds and world we receive as a heritage.

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Like the Romance, Slavic, Germanic and Indo-Iranian language families, the members of the Celtic family show considerable similarities among themselves in vocabulary, grammar, and so on.  Centuries of work on the greater Indo-European family have already been done, insights and advances continue, and many resources exist for the Celtic conlanger and Bard-linguist to draw on. Proto-Celtic, the mother tongue of the Celtic languages, is also being reconstructed.

celtic_familyOne early question to answer in birthing a Celtic conlang is Q or P. No, that’s not some password you have to know in order to gain admission to the Secret Circle of All Druidry (SCOAD), or a riddle posed by the Planetary High Holy Archdruid. P- and Q-Celtic are shorthand for a linguistic division that usefully divides the six living Celtic tongues into two groups of three, based on their treatment of the Indo-European *kw- in words like *kwetwores “four,” Proto Celtic *kwetwar-, with Irish ceathair, Gaelic ceithir, Manx kaire for the Q-side, and Breton pevar, Cornish pesvar and Welsh pedwar for the P-side. Of course, being next-door neighbors as well as cousins, the six languages also borrowed from each other through their centuries together, which delightfully muddies the waters of linguistic post-gnostication (“knowing after the fact,” like pro-gnostication, only not). Flip a coin, go with your gut, follow your own esthetic, pray, do a divination, or some idiosyncratic combo all your own.

I’m going with P.

What else do we know about the Celtic Six as an initial orientation for a language maker? Quite a lot, actually. Here’s just a small sample: all six have a definite article (English “the”), but only one has an indefinite article (English “a, an”). Most have Verb-Subject-Object (VSO “Ate I breakfast”) as a common if not the dominant word order (English is SVO). All count with an old vigesimal system by twenties, as in French, where “eighty” is quatre-vingt “four twenties,” “ninety” is quatre-vingt dix “four twenties (and) ten,” and so on.

And the consonant mutations: no mutations and — sorry! — it’s just not Celtic! Sorta like a sundae without whipped cream, or a kielbasa slathered in coleslaw and mustard without the bun. In brief, depending on the preceding word, the initial consonant of a Celtic word changes in predictable ways. Here’s an example from Welsh:

Ei means “his.”  It causes lenition of the consonant of a following word.  Cath means “cat,” but when lenited after ei, the form is ei gath “his cat.

Ei also means “her” (and provides an example of how mutations can help distinguish words): ei “her” aspirates the consonant of a following word. Ei chath means “her cat.”

Eu means “their”: it doesn’t cause a mutation: eu cath is “their cat.”

It gets tricky because while the insular Celtic languages do all have mutations, their mutations behave differently from language to language. Here is Welsh again, now contrasted with Irish:

Welsh | Irish | English gloss

cath | cath | “cat”

ei gath | a chath | “his cat”

ei chath |  a cath | “her cat”

eu cath | a gcath | “their cat” (Incidentally, not a typo: Irish gc- — like bp- and dt- — is pronounced g but also shows it is derived from an original c. Cool. Or ridiculous. Depending.)

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May we remember you and your gifts, Bríd and Oghma: apt words, the praise of good things, and wisdom dark and bright.

To Brighid
(author unknown)

Brighid of the mantles, Brighid of the hearth fire,
Brighid of the twining hair, Brighid of the auguries,
Brighid of the fair face, Brighid of the calmness,
Brighid of the strong hands, Brighid of the kine.

Brighid, friend of women, Brighid, fire of magic,
Brighid, foster mother, Brighid, woman of wisdom,
Brighid, daughter of Danu, Brighid, the triple flame.
Each day and each night I call the descent of Brighid.

That the power of healing be within us,
That the power of poetry be within us,
That the power of shaping be within us,
In earth, and sky, and among all kindreds.

Kindle your flame in our heads, hearts and loins,
Make us your cup, your harp, your forge,
That we may heal, inspire and transform,
All in your honor, Brighid, font of blessing.

Brighid above us,
Brighid below us,
Brighid in the very air about us,
Brighid in our truest heart!

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Images: Brigid’s CrossOgma.

Edited/updated 15 April 2015

Learning from the Ancestors, Part 1

mallorybkI’ve mentioned my obsession with Indo-European (IE) in previous posts, and given samples of a conlang I derived from IE and use in ritual. One of the many fascinations of this reconstructed language that’s the ancestral tongue of 3 billion people — half the people on the planet alive today — is the glimpses into the culture we can reconstruct along with the language. (Here’s a visual of the IE “family” and many of its members.) How, you thoughtfully ask, can we really know anything about a culture dating from some 6000 years ago – the very approximate time period when the speakers of the IE proto-language flourished? A good question — I’m glad you asked! – and one hotly contested by some with agendas to push – usually a nationalist or religious agenda intent on serving a worldview that excludes some group, worldview or idea. Hey kids, let’s define our club du jour by those we don’t let in!

But the most reasonable and also plausible answer to the question of IE language and culture is also simpler and less theatrical. Indo-European is the best and most thoroughly reconstructed proto-language on the planet — and it’s true there’s much still to learn. But after over two hundred years of steady increases in knowledge about human origins and of thoroughly debated and patient linguistic reconstruction, the techniques have been endlessly proven to work. And if a series of words that converge on a cultural point or practice can be reconstructed for IE, then the cultural practice or form itself is also pretty likely. Notice I don’t say merely a single word. Yes, to give a modest example, IE has the reconstructed word *snoighwos “snow” (the * indicates a reconstruction from surviving descendants — see footnote 1 below for a sample) – and that possibly suggests a region for an IE “homeland” that is temperate enough to get snow.  After all, why have a word for a thing that’s not part of your world in any way? But wait — there’s more!

Here’s an uncontested (note 2) series of reconstructions – *pater, *mater, *sunu, *dukter, *bhrater and *swesor – all pointing to an immediate family unit roughly similar to our “nuclear family,” with father, mother, son, daughter, brother and sister all in place. It’s fairly safe on the basis of this cluster of reconstructed words – and others, if you still doubt, can be provided in painfully elaborate detail – that with a high degree of probability, an IE family existed all those millennia ago that would also be recognizable in modern times and terms.

[Side note: almost every reconstructed IE word listed in this post has a descendant alive in modern English. Want proof? Post a comment and I’ll be happy to provide a list!]

stan carey - Indo-European Jones meme - nothing shocks me - I'm a linguistThings understandably get touchier and more contentious when we move on to words and ideas like *deiwos “god”; *nmrtya “immortality”; *dapnos “potlatch, ritual gift-exchange”; *dyeu + *pater “chief of the gods” (and Latin Jupiter); *sepelyo– “perform the burial rites for a corpse”; and a few whole phrases like *wekwom tekson, literally “weaver of words, poet” and *pa- wiro-peku, part of a prayer meaning something like “protect people and cattle.”

What else can we conclude with considerable confidence about the IE peoples? Many lived in small economic-political units governed by a *reg– “king, chieftain” and lived in *dom– “houses.” Women *guna, *esor left their families at marriage and moved to live with their husbands *potis, *ner, *snubhos. A good name *nomen mattered then just as it does today – even with social media both exalting and trashing names with sometimes dizzying speed – though small-town gossip always filled and fills that role quite well, too. Heroes dominated the tales people told round household and ceremonial fires *pur, *ogni in the village *woikos, *koimos at night *nokwti. The most powerful and famous *klewes– heroes succeeded in slaying the serpent or monster of chaos: *oghwim eghwent “he slew the serpent” and thereby earned *klewos ndhghwitom “undying fame” (note 3). Special rites called for an *asa altar and offerings *spond-, because the universe was a place of an ongoing re-balancing of forces where the cosmic harmony *rti, *rta needed human effort to continue.

With Thanksgiving in the wings, it’s a good time for reflection (is it ever not?). Ways of being human have not changed as much as we might think or fear or be led to believe. Family, relationships, good food and drink, a home, meaningful work, self-respect – these still form the core of the good life that remains our ideal, though its surface forms and fashions will continue to shift, ebb and flow. Hand round the *potlom cup and the *dholis, the portion each person shares with others, so that all may live, and we can still do as our ancestors did: give thanks *gwrat– and praise for the gift *donom of life *gwita.

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1. Linguistic reconstruction involves comparing forms in existing and recorded languages to see whether they’re related.  When you gather words that have a strong family resemblance and also share similar or related meanings, they help with reconstructing the ancestral word that stands behind them, like an old oil portrait of great-great-great grandma in the hallway. Some descendant or other probably still walks around with her characteristic nose or brow or eyes, even if other details have shifted with time, marriage — or cosmetic surgery.

For *snoighwos, a sample of the evidence includes English snow, Russian snegu, Latin nix, niv-, Sanskrit sneha-, and so on.  The more numerous the survivals in daughter languages, the more confident the reconstruction usually is. After a while you see that fairly consistent patterns of vowels and consonants begin to repeat from word to word and language to language, and help predict the form a new reconstruction could take.

A handful of reconstructed words have descendants in all twelve (depending on who does the counting) of the main IE family groups like Italic (Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, all the Romance languages, and others), Celtic (Irish, Welsh, Breton, Manx, etc.), Germanic (German, English, Dutch, Icelandic, Norwegian, Frisian, Swedish, Gothic, etc.), Baltic (Latvian, Lithuanian, Prussian), Slavic (Russian, Serbian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovene, Polabian, Old Church Slavonic, etc.), Greek (Doric, Macedonian, Attic, etc.), Tocharian (A and B), and Indo-Iranian (Sanskrit, Pali, Avestan, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Sindhi, Kashmiri, Dari, Pashto, Farsi, Baluchi, Gujerati, etc.) and so on, to name roughly half of the families, but nowhere near all the members, which number well over 100, not counting dialects and other variants.

2. “Uncontested” means that words with approximately these forms and meanings are agreed on by the overwhelming majority of scholars. If you dip into Indo-European linguistics journals and textbooks, you’ll often see algebraic-looking reconstructions that include details I exclude here — ones having to do with showing laryngeals, stress, vowel length and quality, etc. indicated by diacritics, superscripts and subscripts.

3. Even without the details mentioned in note 2 above, some reconstructions can still look formidably unpronounceable: I challenge any linguist to give three consecutive oral renderings of the second element in the reconstructed phrase *klewos ndhghwitom! The point to remember is that these are usually cautious reconstructions. They generally “show what we know.” Vowels tend to be much more slippery and fickle than consonants in most languages, and so they’re also less often completely clear for IE than the consonantal skeleton is. Several people, me among them, have worked on versions of “Indo-European for daily use”!

Images: Mallory; Indiana Jones the linguist.

Corrected 18 Dec. 2014

Steve Hansen and Galathach

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 — Let’s Form the Circle: Part 1

birchgrovemd

[Part 2 here]

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.

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Image: birch grove.

DRL — A Druid Ritual Language, Part 3

[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

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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DRL — A Druid Ritual Language, Part 2

[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

allnothingOf 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"

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?

Huston Smith

Huston Smith

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 worshippers 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.

Conlangs, Arise!

DanaeLang4

Game of Thrones

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

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 SmithGame of Thrones; all/nothingDanaelect4;  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: spellssongsblessings, 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 (magicianspriests, 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
5:48 Swedish—FSI1
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

Edited/updated 10 July 2014

DRL — a Druid Ritual Language, Part 1

[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.

tridmass

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.

chantcoverAnd 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”

kjvcoverFor 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 surprising 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?

druidrite

Ritual Primers

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

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