Sticks in the Mud

Sticks in the Mud
 In response to last week’s Hoodoo post, and inspired by her word-verification spirit guide Veridu, Strifemonger Never Moon wrote:
“My fave is the retroactive justification: ‘This is mine now, and I am going to dig up horribly shaky non-credible evidence to point out that it was never yours in the first place.'”To which I replied:

“AARRRGH, Druid Sticks!”

So as not to be mistaken as aphasic, I should probably give another quick lecture on geomancy.

Geomantic divination originated sometime between the 9th and 10th centuries in North Africa, spread to the Arabic world, and, over time, found its way to a very Christian Western Europe during the Crusades. As a divinatory system, it’s about as non-Pagan as you can get. However, because of its relative obscurity (at least when compared to Tarot or runes), geomancy has become an easy target for enterprising authors looking for occult subject matter to mash up and spoon-feed to NeoPagan consumers.

A couple of years ago, one of the members of the Geomantic Campus e-mail list posted a link to a set of “druid sticks” she’d found online, and my co-moderator (who is, among other things, a Druid) remarked, “Well, yes, they’re pretty, but WTF?” Being an investigative, scholarly bunch, we dug around and eventually uncovered a 1995 book called Omens, Oghams & Oracles.

From the publisher’s breathless review:

“Although hundreds of books have been written about the Celts and the druids, no book has focused exclusively on Celtic divination–until now. Omens, Oghams & Oracles covers the most important and practical methods of divination in the Celtic and druidic traditions, two of which have never before been published: an original system of divining using the druidic Ogham characters, and ‘Arthurian divination,’ which employs a geomantic oracle called druid sticks.”

Okay. I’m not druidically-minded myself, and I’m fully aware of how little we really know about the ancient druids. That said, I have a sneaking suspicion our wise Celtic ancestors were not up to speed on Islamic methods of prophecy. And what the hell is “Arthurian divination” anyway? If you can’t pull the sword from the stone, is the answer to your question no?

Historical falsifications aside, the “druid sticks” are actually useful. They’ve each got one dot on one side and two dots on the other, so toss four of them on the ground, and boom, instant geomantic figure. Unfortunately, many of the basic interpretations of the geomantic forms presented in this book are watered down to the point where they barely mean anything at all, ensuring that any attempted reading will be inaccurate at best. For example, the figure that traditionally indicates dishonesty, anger and manipulative sexuality is translated as a time for contemplation.


Back on the list, the geomancers traded Celtic Oracle wisecracks for awhile before officially banning the term “druid sticks” and moving on to other topics. Until a few months later, that is, when I decided to check out the weekly Reading Circle hosted by a metaphyiscal shop on the outskirts of town.

The idea behind a Reading Circle is that everyone brings his or her favorite form of divination and reads for each other, just to get some practice and hone skills. I ran several geomantic charts, and while most went over well, one of them just tanked: Nothing but random dots on a page, no decent insight whatsoever. I expected the guy getting the reading to be disappointed, so his growing excitement over the whole experience struck me as odd.

“This is so similar to how we teach Ogham in our Druid class!” he exclaimed.

“Really?” I asked, because I’m oblivious. “How so?”

“Well,” he said, “We have these little sticks, see, with one dot on one side and two dots on the other…”

If we listen very closely, we’ll be able to hear Bo’s head explode.



Something I wrote on Ogam:

‘The Old Irish word properly refers to an native Irish alphabet of strokes or notches designed to be incised on stone, and probably wood, attested as inscriptions from the 5th to the 6th centuries in Ireland, and perhaps also from the late 4th. The origin of the letters has been much-debated: the current scholarly consensus is that the distribution of the letters in the system is derives from the classification of letters found in Latin grammarians of the 1st-4th centuries AD, and thus is an imitation of Latin literacy, as indeed is the custom of inscribing stone monuments. The inscriptions, usually border markers or grave memorials, often in the form [The stone of] X son of Y’, mostly occur in a broad band across southern Ireland and areas of Irish settlement in southern Wales, always in the Irish language. The writing of other Celtic languages in ogham is completely ahistorical, with the exception of occasional examples of Pictish use of the script. The name was related by the medieval Irish themselves to Ogma, one of the champions of the Tuatha Dé Danann or former Irish gods, who was supposed to have devised the alphabet.

Due to the eccentric theories of the poet Robert Graves in The White Goddess (1948), it is common among druids to regard the script as a mystical or occult ‘tree alphabet’, because a minority of the letters are named after trees. The tree-link is probably a red-herring: Damian McManus showed in A Guide to Ogam (Maynooth, 1991), pp. 35-43, that most of the names are not, in fact, trees, and never have been. Further, the idea that the alphabet is a tree-calendar, in which each tree/letter corresponds to a lunar month, has developed, and even spawned a kind of ersatz Celtic astrology, in which the ‘tree-months’ are imagined as resembling the signs of the zodiac. All these are modern concepts. There is also nothing in particular to link the script to the pre-Christian druids of Ireland, though it is not unlikely that as the pagan educated class they were familiar with it around the time of conversion. It *may* have been used for a kind of divination: certain early Irish sagas suggest this, However, said sagas are giving a fictional portrayal of a pre-Christian Ireland, as imagined by early medieval Churchmen, and I suspect that the idea of ogam-letter divination – which is not a widespread topos in the material – may have been inspired by Irish encounters with rune-divining Viking invaders, who were pestering the island at the very time when these sagas were being redacted. In all, the concept of ogham as a sacred, druidic alphabet and calendar is deeply-entrenched among modern pagans and almost entirely fictitious.’


Thalia Took said…

The little sticks with the dots are reminding me quite strongly of the ancient Egyptian throwing sticks, used with games like senet to determine the move, like dice. I mean, in the shape of them, anyway.

Let’s see if I can find a link to a picture so you know what I’m talking about.

Here we are (about halfway down the page). They are flat on one side and rounded on the other, and have little jackal-heads on one end and what have always looked like fingernails to me on the other.

I mean, that’s kind of neither here nor there, but I think they’re cool-looking.

Evn said…

Ooh, wait, pardon me, gotta correct you on one thing. Druid sticks actually trace back two decades earlier than the 1990’s.

From Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft, pub. 1970:

“I shall now move on to a simple type of witch divination, which you as a beginner would be well advised to learn. The operation is known by the name of Casting the Runes.

“Divination by rune sticks is one of the most ancient and celebrated witch methods of prognostication we have. The process dates back certainly to Druidic times and probably before. It is a very good example of a method of augury, that is, prediction or knowledge gained by signs and omens, as opposed to that of the inner vision as employed when scrying in a show stone or mirror.

“Basically the rune sticks consist of four flat slats of fruitwood–apple, pear, cherry, plum, hazel, rowan, or any other wood if you cannot obtain these. But they must be wood. They should be about five inches in length by about a quarter to a half inch in width. Finish off the rough edges and make the rods smooth and comfortable to the touch. Sprinkle them with salt and water and fumigate with a Mercurial incense within a properly cast circle. Now, using your brush and paint of art, make a large and obvious dot on one side of each of them, centrally located. When the paint has dried, turn the rods over and make two large dots on the other side of them, spaced so that the gaps between the dots themselves and the ends of the rod are all equal, in fact, so that the rods are marked into three equal segments by two dots.

“These are your rune sticks. You should carry them about with you for a period of time before you use them to charge them with your magnetism, or witch power.”


John Michael Greer said…

Actually, there are a couple of surviving medieval Irish Ogham handbooks that allow most Irish Ogham texts to be read (not the Pictish ones, though — they’re in some non-Indo-European language, either that or absolute gibberish).

There are also a couple of references in medieval Irish sources that suggest Ogham might have been used for general divinatory purposes. Do we know how? Not a chance. All modern Ogham divination systems are either descended from the work of Colin Murray, who invented a system out of his head in the 1970s, or are even more recent.

As for “Druid sticks,” well, most Druids of my acquaintance use sticks for a variety of purposes, such as thwacking overly dogmatic Celtic Reconstructionists over the head when they yell themselves hoarse because our imaginative reinvention of Druid spirituality is older and less academically fashionable than their imaginative reinvention of Druid spirituality. Still, I’m pretty sure that “druid sticks” in the sense of popsicle sticks for geomantic divination are a mid-1990s invention, for the sole purpose of making dowdy old geomancy look more palatable for a Neopagan audience.


Never Moon said…

But Evn! The wisdom of the ancients is so much more valuable than ANYTHING anyone comes up with nowadays. The spiritual journey of those long dead are the only true paths to nirvana/ heaven/ enlightenment/ true happiness/ fulfillment. The spiritual journeys of modern people could never produce insight into realms of the profound.

Also, I am not up on my linguistic breakthroughs, but I’m pretty sure Ogham is still untranslated… making religion and/or divination and/or ummm, anything based on the language pretty much impossible.





Leave a Reply