Finding Ethical Guidance in Lore

CounsellingLet me begin this blog entry with thanking all the folks who read the previous blog entry about Lughnasad Magic of the Alpine Corn-Cutters, and for their “likes” in the various apps of social media. For this piece, I would like to particularly pick out one moving comment that got me thinking. A fellow member on the Facebook group “Druids” wrote:

A wonderful article I plan to think on for a long while. It is easy to forget how your impatience or even aptitude can cause others harm.

Yes, the first part was moving in terms of ego, I admit, but the actually interesting portion is the second sentence! There are a number of topics to think about that come to mind, and I’d like to hone in on one of them: How much, if at all, does, and should we let, lore and customs give us moral guidance in our lives?

Let’s revisit the tale for a moment:

Once upon a time, a cutter was plagued by bad luck; his scythe was not sharp, ever. His peers were always faster when they mowed behind him, so that he had to cut much harder to stay on track. But the cutter had heard of an old blacksmith deep in the forest, went to him, and asked for help. The old man gave the cutter a new scythe and told him that he has to sharpen it as good as he can. Then he told him to cut the wooden handle of the sharpening tool. If he was able to do that, he’d have a scythe like no other. “But know this,” the old man said, “never torment the other cutters by mowing unfairly fast. If the scythe gets old come for a new one. But I will see if you adhered to my request.”

After years, when the scythe’s blade had been sharpened so much it was almost gone, the cutter returned to the blacksmith and asked for a new one. “Let me see,” said the old man, and he took the scythe and hit its point against the anvil. With each hit, the blade shrank, and blood dripped from it. “You did not follow my advice, you pushed your companions to mow faster than they could. Look at all the blood!” Thus, the cutter had to leave and mow with bad scythes until the end of his days.

(For those who haven’t had a chance to read the whole previous article, a quick explanation about the blood on the scythe: Schnitter, when working together, cut in a row, one cutter slightly behind the other. While this ensures best overlap when mowing, it is also dangerous for the person in front when the one behind mows too fast. Cutting into the heels of the person in front is an imminent threat.)

When looking at Alpine lore in big picture format, there are those stories that wag a blatantly Christian moral index finger at us. Staying within the set of tales about Schnitter (the corn-cutters who gather to commence their harvest work around the time other Celtic nations celebrate Lughnasadh), this would be the stories with essentially this core: A cutter does not have the physical strength or tools to at least stay afloat with his peers, slowing down the whole effort and drawing ridicule from colleagues and the maidens. Big thing, the latter. Instead of working harder or waiting patiently until their time comes, they strike a deal with the devil and get to the top immediately. With the price, of course, that the devil comes for the soul of the slacker after an agreed-upon time. Here, the first layer of moralizing is: work hard and don’t try any shortcuts. Almost too simple. The second layer is already a more serious warning: if you want to catch up with life don’t invoke the Old Gods. In Christian terms, any and all of them are the devil, and communicating with them, requesting their help (translated as “striking a deal”) can only mean one thing: you’re are hell-bound.

Of course, these themes are not only found in lore about Schnitter. Farmers and landlords, trades-people and even lovers all find their doom when dealing with the devil, aka commune with the Old Gods, requesting guidance and inspiration for their ordeals.

But this is still a far too obvious and superficial Christian moral message of these tales. Much more interesting is the guideline the magus gives the cutter in our story. Because, at this point, the tale has already left the realm of Christianity, and the moral compass is set by the Magus, who basically says, “You have journeyed to me in the deep forest (aka Otherworld) and asked for Magic enhancing your scythe. I will gift that to you, but it will only benefit you if you don’t abuse the Magic, if you do not upset the balance needed to work in a group, if you put the common good above your personal interests.” In very short, this song of old suggests, dare I say it, White Magic or doom.

I do have to say that, while moralizing is abounding in lore, one seldom finds such direct hinting at social best practice. Mostly actually, rewards await those who give to the poor, even when not wealthy themselves, or something along those lines. Charity and handouts are praised; submitting oneself to the interest of the Common, the Greater Good, as the Magus in the story recommends to the cutter, usually not so much.

But at any rate, the Magus clearly warns the protagonist of the consequences of abusing Magic; a warning that we also find in the Wiccan Rede, in the Threefold Law or in the Druidic Law of the Harvest to name a few. And while I will argue for anyone’s liberty to choose to not adhere to these moral guidelines, I myself am convinced that not doing so will slow down, if not hinder, magical progress. Going the road of Dark or Black Magic may prove to show stronger results faster, but it’s not a challenge. Going the ethical path is simply harder – which is probably why so many hate it – but I am convinced that it ultimately brings the practitioner further.

At any rate, what I cannot accept as an argument (any more) is that these concepts (Rede and Law of the Harvest and what not) are new, or Neo-whatever. Clearly, they are, as concepts, as old as the mountains.

For more about Alpine lore and customs and how they relate to Celtic times, please consider my book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps”, available at (preferred) and distributers such as





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3 Responses to Finding Ethical Guidance in Lore

  1. Joe says:

    I think though it’s commonly expressed and thought of in the history of magic, white and black magic are not nearly so neat or exclusive of categories. I also think now that when you’re doing it right it is hard to put in a simple category. I try to think mostly in terms of balance, but in as wide a species context as i can muster.

    I have enjoyed the story. Read shortly after waking.

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