Language Matters

I used a term in the post the other day and the same person who emailed me about my “witchiness” came back at me saying me that leighseanna is an Irish word for a witch’s spell and if I don’t want people to call me a witch, I shouldn’t use words like that.

The short reply is no, it is not. It has never meant that. It is a word still used in Irish today. It is the plural of leigheas. It means remedies. People trying to make it something more than that are pushing the “herbal remedies equals witchy” trope.

When it comes to discussing language though, I am never content with just giving a short answer. Pisreóg, piseog or pishogue might be the closest word we have to that. In the Dineen dictionary, the variations of this term were defined as having to do with witchcraft. He might have retrieved that from an older British dictionary written by William Shaw in 1780,1 as a lot of the entries seem to line up.

pisreóg, pisreogach, pistreog. See piseog, piseogach.

piseog, -oige, -oga, f., witchcraft, sorcery; a charm, a spell; lucht piseog, wizards, diviners;

piseoga, pl., superstitious acts, witchcraft.

piseogach, -aighe, a., like a witch or wizard; belonging to witchcraft.

piseogacht, -a, f., act of bewitching, of setting charms or spells,
little bit; dim. of píosa).

Dineen Dictionary’s entries

The word witchcraft, however, was widely overused; usually as an effort to criminalize Indigenous practices and oppress people. Dineen did not bother to take the time to distinguish between a witch and a service magician. To his religious sensibilities anyone who used “magic” was a witch and working with evil forces. You see this attitude often when members of the clergy wrote about cunning folk and wise women in the 1600’s.

I choose my language very carefully so that it lines up with historical practice in a way that is least influenced by colonizers. The word “witch” is an English word, derived from the old English words “wicca” and “wicce” which are probably tied to the Old English word “wǽcan” meaning to weaken, oppress, or trouble “wác.” A witch is a worker of maleficence, and this practice is not synonymous with other cultures’ workers of maleficence or with ritual healing specialists (service magicians) people consult for help. Even in England, there were other words for those practitioners such as fortune teller, cunning person, or wise woman.

You will find in the oral narrative of most cultures both workers of maleficence and magic workers whose job it is to negate the effects of that magic. Irish culture is a bit different in that there was more focus on the aes sídhe (the Fae or fairies lit. “people of the mounds”) as the protagonist and truly little mention of witches.

I recently had an interesting conversation with one of my history nerd friends. They had read that as belief in fairies waned, old women and witches replaced them in seanscéal. That seems plausible based on how similar the stories are.  I even found one story of a witch stealing a human child and replacing it with a baby witch. The butter “witches” that I mentioned Mooney talking about in my last post would fit in this hypothesis as well since the Fae were well known for stealing the butter.

That is all conjecture though. What I know is that I grew up around people who were very much into their folk beliefs including the throwing around of curses and blessings and no one ever once mentioned the idea that they were witches. Even the most devoutly Catholic of old-timers could tell you about the pisreóga of their region or call down mallacht (curses) or beannacht (blessings), and that common use is what sets these practices apart from witchcraft.

So, what do those words mean? Pisreóga is also spelled piseoga or you might see the Hiberno-English spelling pishogue. It varies by region. In Co. Mayo where they speak a variant of the Connaught dialect, we read about Pisreóga of the Parish. In Co. Waterford, where they speak a variant of the Munster dialect, we read about Old Customs And Piseoga. Because the Munster dialect is often taught as “standard” learners Irish, that spelling seems to be winning out these days, especially in academic circles.

Today pisreóga are most often defined as a superstitious belief, but I really hate the negative connotation the word superstition carries with it. Every culture has its own unique folk beliefs. It is what accounts for our divergent customs and traditions. It is unacceptable that scholars continue to identify Indigenous beliefs as superstition and witchcraft. It is a type of cultural erasure due in part to colonization tactics perpetuated by academia.

I grew up believing piseog or pishogue was the specific term for an action while pisreóga spoke more of the general beliefs, and Dineeen’s entries seem to back that up, but I think even if it was that way once, it’s all mixed up now. One explanation of the meaning is that these words are related to the word piseach which means improvement or increase and that these terms drew their name “from the idea of increase and good fortune” that using them brought about. 2

Pisreóga could be believing in a portent such as a lucky black cat or the bad luck that meeting a pig on the way to the market might bring you. A piseog might involve putting coals under the churn to keep the fairies away from the butter or marking settings of hatching eggs with a cross.  

There are also piseog that involve bringing misfortune to a neighbor to bring yourself good fortune. It was usually in the form of charms that stole butter or crops from a neighbor. The belief in stealing butter was very strong in all parts of Ireland. It was attributed to the fairies, old women who turned themselves into hares, or neighbors.

There are specific service magicians thought to be especially knowledgeable of healing pisreóga in the form of cures, charms, or prayers. I have seen them called many things in the past, including cailleach luibh [herb hag], fairy doctors, lucht piseog, fear piseog, and bean feasa. There’s an interesting entry in the Schools collection written by a teacher in Co. Limerick who used the term piseog doctor.3

“They say that the most suitable place that the piseog doctor (the man who practises piseoga) could find to work his charms and practises is a double ditch that is a boundary, between two parishes. I am not sure now is it between two parishes or two townlands or two baronies. They (the piseog doctors) had some particular power there. (Dick Butler) – (Any connection between the site of the piseog doctors special potency and the erection of oghamh stones on the tuath boundary i Sean-Éirinn? D.O.C)1

It is crucial to point out that these people still exist in Ireland and the diaspora, and don’t associate their practice with witches or witchcraft. The Irish Times just published an interesting article about this back in December.2 I was surprised the people agreed to be interviewed.

The Irish and their diaspora are also known for their really elaborate mallacht (curses). They are the flipside of all the Irish beannacht (blessings) we read about. Some people like to assert that this is some leftover remnant of Ireland’s pagan past, but the truth of the matter is that no one knows that for sure and there’s plenty of folk magic in the Bible, so I don’t want to make claims I can’t substantiate.

Some mallacht are all in playful fun while others wished harm on the receiver, but not to worry because you could send back a curse and it was often said that you should be careful of bringing a curse on someone because “curses like hens come home to roost.”

It wasn’t just people cursing people.  If February has nice weather, it’s said to curse the other months. People cursed the winds back to hell during a storm. My great grandma taught that the blackbird curses you if you steal from their nest.  (She had a thing for blackbirds, she named my grandpa Merle even though most people thought it was a girl’s name.)

Scholars will tell you the difference between pisreóga and mallacht were that curses were only meant to bring harm to evildoers. That is a highly debatable statement that most of the old-timers I knew would have just laughed at.  I’ve seen plenty of curses called out in the heat of the moment on people who were not deserving of them, but I worked for some time as a bartender at a bar where the local priest came to drink and watch Notre Dame play basketball.

Curses were often brought down on landlords, bankers, and judges. Since I am a proper peasant, I really don’t have a problem with that. However, when your priest throws out a curse just because you marry someone who isn’t Catholic, I am going to call foul on that. My great-grandfather was presumably born with his club foot because of a curse placed on our family. Looking back on the family history I sometimes believe that we might have been cursed.

I don’t believe you should be flip-flopping names for service magicians who are benevolent, with the term witch. It is also not respectful to appropriate the name of another culture’s deities, magic workers, or rituals, so please don’t come at me with the whole Celtic Shaman nonsense either.

1. Maclagan, Robert Craig. Evil Eye in the Western Highlands. D. Nutt, 1902.
2. Specia, Megan. ‘The New York Times Came to Ireland to Look for Secret Charms and Seventh Sons. This Is What It Found’. The Irish Times. Accessed 23 December 2021.
3. Shaw, William. A Galic and English Dictionary: Containing All the Words in the Scotch and Irish Dialects of the Celtic, … Vol. 1–2. W. and A. Strahan, 1780.
4. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0507, Page 141 Image and data © National Folklore Collection, UCD

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

If you want to read more about me, it's on the website

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