Edain McCoy, Witta: An Irish Pagan Tradition (Llewellyn Publications, 1998)

 Most books on Irish Paganism focus expressly on the Celtic mythology, forgetting that Celts were a wide-spread people -- many of them living on the mainland, like the Gauls.  Too many of these books leave out how exactly these heroic myths shaped the particularly Irish religion.   Witta: An Irish Pagan Tradition provides a missing link of sorts which may prove essential to understanding the Irish religion in a more cultural context.  Ms. McCoy does a wonderful job of giving an overview of the way each Irish clan and community once saw their world and the forces that shaped it, reminding us that the beauty and simplicity of that world is still available today.  Ancient Ireland, through the life-affirming path of Witta, can still be very much alive in the heart today.

How is Witta different from its more Anglo-Saxon and Brythonic cousin, Wicca?  Although the difference is subtle, McCoy does point out that Witta originated perhaps more as a rural, simplistic approach to the craft, using crude and natural tools instead of those frequently employed in ceremonial magick, which seems more a part of Wiccan lore.  There are no set ritual accouterments in Wittan practice, only those which seem right to the practitioner -- although suggestions are made.  The reminder is placed firmly on the ancient times during which Witta originated, thousands of years ago.  For example, in standard Wiccan ritual, an athame is used to cast circles.  And McCoy urges that, if using an athame feels right to the Witta practitioner -- if the individual feels a real affinity towards this tool -- then it should be used.  But in reality, a pointed finger from the dominant hand can just as effectively be used, as can a staff or wand.  Along the same line of thought, if an individual wishes to set up a formal altar, that is acceptable -- but a simple box or  beautiful piece of ground serves just as well.  Purists of Wittan thought feel that the unadorned tools of nature are best when seeking the use of natural forces on their behalf.   Another possible difference with Wiccan ritual lies in the idea that Wittans never overly concerned themselves with appeasing or representing the elements.  They recognized their presence and were very aware of their symbology; although using ritual tools to represent them when they chose to, they did not find them a prerequisite for magickal or ritual working.  Modern Witta has adopted some of same ritual tools of Wicca, but for those wishing to harken back to the very old Wittan ways, simplicity is the key.

McCoy, who approaches the history of Wittan craft from a more feminist view, points out the differences between the patriarchal religions and the very old practices, such as Witta.  She reminds us that, before the Druids, who are traditionally thought of as the summit of Celtic power guardians of knowledge, the Mother Goddess was supreme over all deities.  The ancient clan systems of Ireland were based on maternal bloodlines, with the maternal grandmother being the matriarch of the family group, and the mother’s brothers providing role models for the children.  In essence, in the very old days, paternity counted for little.  It was the ‘wise women’ who were the herbal healers, and who were looked to for spiritual help, before the days of patriarchy.  McCoy notes that women were trained in battle, fought alongside their men and shared equality in all aspects of clan life.  When missionaries finally arrived  in Ireland, they were appalled by this equality, and set about dismantling the clan systems into the more nuclear-type families we know today.   For awhile, the Old Religions were allowed to exist alongside the Christian missionaries’ faith, albeit uneasily, because laws regarding religion were not as strictly enforced in Ireland.  McCoy notes that Ireland had become the refuge of many Pagans fleeing from persecution, as not only were the laws less strictly enforced, but in the West, Ireland was literally at the 'ends of the earth.'  The Romans had never conquered Ireland, so it maintained a relative laxity in religious laws for quite some time.  But with the new religions shifting to patriarchy -- whether it was the new Christian faith or the well-known power of the Druid priesthood -- the matriarchs gradually lost all power.

McCoy is careful to explain as well what has been considered a debated area in the practice of Druidry -- that it was, for all intents and purposes, a patriarchy.  Some women were associated with the Druids -- called Dryads -- but they had limited rights and training, and were more associated with healing than with participating in the key rituals.  The Druidic system also emphasized other deities over the Mother Goddess -- who evolved into the Triple Goddess, as she is known to this day -- and most of these deities were male.  Some of them were even originally female deities subverted into male versions (such as the Great Mother being replaced by the Dagda).   McCoy explains that the Kells, a separate women’s ‘priesthood’, existed along with the Druids and other Pagan worships, but were wiped out in the first millennium along with the other earth religions.   The missionaries especially could not tolerate the fact that the Kells operated in virtual freedom, including taking what and how ever many lovers they chose.

Alongside the history, McCoy gives basic examples of learning ritual exercises, and offers good beginner’s instructions in how to cast a circle, do candle and other basic magick, easy spells, and suggestions on how to make these rituals more ‘Irish’ through, for example,  folk dances and music.  She also provides descriptions of the sabbats, and wonderful authentic Irish recipes for inclusion in the celebrations.   I can’t wait to try some of them myself.

For those who are relatively new to Irish history and the pantheons, McCoy gives a basic description of each of the major deities, and a short description of the myth cycle of conquering Island races.  She also includes a helpful glossary of terms and deities, a reference guide to herbs, and even a few traditional Irish music pieces to learn to play -- preferably on the pennywhistle.  At the end of the book, the author even provides a list of useful resources and addresses for causes ranging from environmentalism to Irish cultural societies.

I found this book an easy-to-understand, well-written guide especially geared toward beginners in the craft, for those seeking a more Irish focus (like myself), or perhaps those looking for a more natural and simplistic way of practice.  It is not intended for descriptions of ceremonial magick, or for those seeking in-depth knowledge of the craft.  The author acknowledges this and actually includes references for those searching such elaboration.  Witta: an Irish Pagan Tradition may be a ho-hum read for Wiccans experienced in magick and ceremony, but it’s definitely a worthwhile read for anyone of  Irish descent -- and, with its light emphasis on feminine empowerment -- especially enriching for female practitioners.

[Kimberlee Rettberg]