Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Who's a Celt now? - 7

A quirky translation of witches' chants

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3,Part 4, Part 5,
Part 6

Stephen Oppenheimer, the anthropologist who combines DNA, archaeological, and linguistic evidence to argue against any "glorious Celtic heritage" in England, further argues that Celtic languages were not widespread there before the Roman invasion.

His work reminded me of a quirky book that was published in 1973--a peak year for books on Paganism and Witchcraft, as I describe in the chapter "The Playboy and the Witch" in Her Hidden Children. That book was The Roots of Witchcraft, by the English writer Michael Harrison.

Harrison's approach to nonfiction (he was also a novelist) was "bisociative," as Colin Wilson kindly put it: "His mind suddenly perceives the relation between his thesis and some apparently unrelated subject, which gives his work a continued element of unexpectedness."

"Continued element of unexpectedness." In other words, how did he get there?

But Harrison's book is still on coven reading lists. He completely bought Margaret Murray's idea of "the Old Religion," protected by the 11th and 12th-century Plantagenet kings, and all of that, and refers to Gerald Gardner's adaptation of Murray as "usually correct." So people who want to believe in an unbroken continuation of the Old Religion from Then until Now love Harrison; I think that my old friend Evan John Jones was one of them.

This despite Harrison's casual "bisociative" assertions, such as the one that the Persians enjoyed electric lighting in the 5th century BCE. If that were true, I think that President Ahmadinejad would be using it to justify Iran's nuclear program. But I digress.

Intrigued with some alleged witchcraft chants and other words recorded during the Renaissance and early modern witch trials, such as the famous "Eko Eko Azarek" chant, Harrison set out to decipher them.

He decided that they had to be from a "pre-Celtic tongue." Now Oppenheimer is arguing that much of England was speaking a Germanic tongue before the Roman invasion, setting aside the former idea that most of England spoke some ancient variety of P-Celtic (a predecessor of Welsh) at that time. But what might have come before that?

A generation ago, Harrison thought that it had to be Basque, the enigmatic language that some believe is a relic of the oldest Neolithic language(s) of Western Europe. At least Basque would fit with an Iberian origin for most of the population of the British Isles, you have to grant him that. And he was writing before the DNA studies were conceivable.

Not knowing Basque, but possessed of a Basque-English dictionary, he set out to decipter the witches' chants and thus demonstrate that they were--he thought--in an ancient liturgical language that followers of the Old Religion knew by rote even after they had lost the sense of the words.

He had lots of fun, you can tell.

Unfortunately, sometimes his folk etymology--the idea that two words that sound alike must mean the same thing--leads him to some odd bisociative conclusions. For instance, "Alammani," sounds like "al yemen" in Arabic, so that Germanic tribe must have an Arabic origin!

But with his dictionary, Harrison proved to his own satisfaction that (a) the ritual language of the "Old Religion" was Basque, and (b) since the Basque language might well be Neolithic, then (c) certainly the "Old Religion" was indeed the Stone Age religion of Britain, as Gerald Gardner had proposed in the 1950s. QED.

"Eko Eko Azarek"? It means, claims Harrison, "Kill for the November feast," as in right about now, the feast of Samhain, when surplus livestock might be slaughtered. Don't tell your hardcore Gardnerian friends that you know that "secret" meaning.

As for me, "Ez dakit euskaraz hitz egiten."

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Ez dakit euskaraz hitz egiten." =
I'm a vegetarian, please pass the potatoes?

5:23 AM  
Blogger Chas S. Clifton said...

Nothing so complex. I lifted it off the Wikipedia page to which I linked, and it means, "I don't speak Basque."

I would also then need to know how to say, "I am an omnivore."

8:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Denetik jaten dut.

(Ez horregatik)

9:18 AM  
Blogger Chas S. Clifton said...

Same to you, I'm sure.

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Chas, I'm linking to all these articles from The Pagan Theologies wiki. Great stuff!

4:51 AM  

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