Folklore, mythology, and even contemporary fiction have a way of showing us ourselves — our beliefs, our hopes, our fears, our values — in ways that no other medium can. In stories that feature spirits, we engage in conversations about how we relate and respond to the world and the many beings that surround us. We explore mystery and how to survive (and flourish) in a reality that is, and always will be, not entirely comprehensible; that is alive in ways that we often struggle to understand; and that we do not dominate but into which we are inextricably woven. Stories feed more stories; we take them with us throughout our lives, growing and nurturing them, to express the otherwise ineffable, give us strength and purpose, and deepen our love of the world in which we live.
River Magic is one of these stories. In it, the protagonist Lacey finds herself thrown into a complex and mysterious relationship with a mermaid, a spirit occupying the Saint Lawrence River in upstate New York, which sets off a series of events that Lacey must learn to navigate with courage, faith in her spiritual gifts and intuition, and deepening religious values as a druid. Author M.A. Phillips is a practicing druid in upstate New York, and I was eager to learn how her own practices and beliefs, as well as the stories and traditions of Ireland, inspired River Magic.
THE CUNNING WīF: In River Magic, Lacey finds a lot of power in connecting to her Irish heritage through ritual and stories. How have these things shaped your religious identity, practices, and experiences?
M.A. PHILLIPS: I grew up reading about and admiring the Olympians and heroes of Greek mythology, so my first experiences with Pagan ritual involve them. While they continue to inspire me, I realized my true path was elsewhere. Something sparked when I talked to a friend about the Irish goddess Brigid. I felt pulled to read about her, and then more about the culture of my ancestors. As an aspiring writer and crafty lady myself, Brigid seemed like the sort of role model I needed. Finding Druidry and Irish polytheism was like a homecoming of sorts. The emphasis on art, symbolism, and traditions rooted in the cycles of the land resonated with me and shaped my adulthood.
I do want you and your readers to know that I’m an American descended from Irish immigrants. While I’m very inspired and passionate about my heritage, I cannot speak as someone who is immersed in Irish culture. Like my characters, Lacey and Cian, I’m always working to improve my knowledge, and I encourage anyone who is genuinely curious about my spirituality to start with native Irish sources. Also, I want to point out that “Irish DNA” is not required to study, respect, and honor Irish traditions.
The power of music is a recurring motif in River Magic. What role does music play in Druidry? In Irish folklore and myth? How is music utilized in your private and/or group practices?
Music plays an important role in Irish folklore and myth. One of my favorite tales is about the god an Dagda and his harp. He plays music that can make a crowd weep, dance with joy, and then fall asleep. He uses this enchanting ability to outwit the enemies who stole his instrument! Stories like that teach us the power of music, and some of the most intense magical experiences I’ve had involved such practices as drumming, chanting, or dancing to a beat.
Most of us can agree that songs have the ability to transport us to other times or set the mood. Every circle and grove I’ve belonged to used songs as offerings or to raise energy. During these days of social distancing, that’s probably one of the things I miss most about in-person ritual. It’s just not the same online. I really enjoyed proofreading River Magic and reliving those ritual scenes, imagining the melodies floating through the trees!
Dreams play a significant role in River Magic, helping to characterize Lacey and advancing the plot. In the book, you distinguish between regular dreams and “meaningful dreams” that Lacey describes as feeling “heavier” (15). What role do dreams have, or how are they viewed, in Irish folklore and myth? In modern Druidry?
Dreams and prophecy play a major role in several old stories. I’ve always been fascinated by tales of the second sight and intuition. Like other Pagans, many modern Druids believe that some have an innate ability, but others can develop it — though it’s not always a blessing.
According to legend, a poet recovered Táin Bó Cúailnge, the epic saga about Ireland’s hero, Cú Chulainn, by sleeping on the grave of warrior Fergus mac Róich. In this way, Fergus recounts the whole story to the poet. How fantastic is that? This demonstrates a belief that the ancestors can communicate with us through dreams. I know many of us engage in dream work of some sort to communicate with our spirit allies.
I mention a specific tale in River Magic – the story of how the god Angus finds his lover, Caer. It’s one of my favorites. She basically haunts his dreams for months. He falls in love with Caer this way, and goes out to find her. That’s when Angus discovers she’s imprisoned with other women in the form of swans. This myth illustrates the power of love and longing, but also dreams! It seems that Caer is able to navigate the dream world and communicate with Angus, which is something I find fascinating. At one point in the story, Lacey’s dream seems to overlap with Cian’s. This is something I’d like to explore further.
Hopefully without giving away any spoilers, I’d love to talk about the mermaid herself, particularly her physical form and relations. I love that her appearance is so fluid — she appears in various forms, depending on what humans expect her to look like or the form that they’re most likely to respond effectively to — but she does say that she has a “true form,” albeit one that is perhaps inconceivable to humans. Can you talk a little bit about the shapeshifting powers of spirits in the context of Irish folklore, myth, and legend? Is there anything in particular — including personal gnosis or experience, if applicable — that inspired your conception of the mermaid in River Magic?
Several beloved stories inspired parts of River Magic. Along with the story of Angus and Caer, and lore associated with Brigid, I thought a lot about water spirits in Irish legend. I considered making the river spirit a selkie, for example, but since we do not have seals in this part of the Saint Lawrence River, it wouldn’t make sense, and I didn’t want to alter the tradition too much. I also thought about kelpie stories. They are shapeshifters, and known for being dangerous. So the river spirit appears in the form most Americans would recognize and react to while maintaining qualities seen in water spirits around the world.
She’s also inspired by local ecology, especially lake sturgeons. They’re my favorite fish! Most mermaid stories take inspiration from tropical fish given their oceanic settings, but I wanted to show some love to an ancient and threatened species in New York State.
Towards the end of River Magic, Lacey contemplates the relationship between the land and the spirits celebrated by her ancestors, wondering if any of the spirits known in Ireland immigrated with Irish humans to Turtle Island. This is a question I’ve seen other pagan and polytheist settlers contemplate, as we navigate the spiritual landscape of Turtle Island and work to connect with both the indigenous spirits of this land as well as the spirits celebrated and worshiped by our ancestors who lived in other places around the world. Would you mind sharing some of your own thoughts about this?
Sure! It’s an interesting topic, and one I often contemplate. I get the feeling that some spirits did follow. One of my first teachers, Skip Ellison, taught me this, partly based on his own experiences. Morgan Daimler even recently posted about possibly having heard a bean sí near their American home.
Along with the deities and ancestors I honor, my only other experiences have been with spirits rooted in the land I’m living with — mostly plant spirits. It comes with a knowing in my gut that I’m encountering something otherworldly, but I haven’t been able to get any idea of cultural associations from them. I continue to do my best to show respect through my actions and to look to First Nations and Irish people for guidance.
As I wade further into examining colonialism and how it’s shaped my mindset and relationship with the land and others, I find myself encountering more questions than answers, personally. My thoughts continue to evolve. I find it valuable to be patient, reflective, and not jump to conclusions.
The Saint Lawrence River is a palpable character in the story, and I believe you live near the river yourself. In some ways, River Magic feels very much like an offering, an act of devotion, to the Saint Lawrence. Do you mind talking about your own relationship with the Saint Lawrence River? Have you had any particularly powerful/meaningful experiences with this river that you feel comfortable sharing?
River Magic very much became a devotional to the Thousand Islands region, the Saint Lawrence, and Brigid.
I’m so glad the river came across as a character! The mermaid is not supposed to be the whole river, but she certainly represents part of it. It’s a dynamic ecosystem that connects the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean, spanning multiple cultures. There’s a saying I often see on decorative signs around here: If you’re lucky enough to live near the river, you’re lucky enough. I happen to live thirty minutes away, but spend as much time there as I can. I love to sit by the current and enjoy nature’s music.
I think the most intense spiritual experiences I’ve had on the Saint Lawrence involved encounters with wildlife, in particular seeing a huge sturgeon, soaring ospreys, and a playful river otter. I always feel so lucky when that happens! When it’s warmer, I put my feet in and meditate on how the land, sky, and water mingle. Whenever I visit the river, I say hello, sing a song of offering, and just give thanks that I have the privilege to be there. It’s truly a magical place. ◼
M.A. Phillips lives in Northern NY with her husband, daughter, and three cats. She is a writer, English teacher, and practicing Druid. Some of her short stories have been published in Stone, Root, and Bone magazine. Her debut, River Magic, is an adult magical realism novel featuring a friends-to-lovers romance, contemporary Pagans, and a vengeful mermaid. When she isn’t writing, you can find her in the garden, sewing, or enjoying a book with a side of tea. You can read more about her spiritual and creative journey on her blog ditzydruid.com, or on Twitter & Instagram @ditzydruid.
To purchase River Magic, visit Shadow Spark Publishing. Follow the River Magic book tour via Storytellers on Tour.