Distance Working

with Carrie West

Distance coven workings are a completely different matter for us because these are being set-up on different channels.  These are usually implemented when members move away but wish to remain part of the mother-coven, or to include members who have completed the formality of the foundation course and live in a different part of the world – even in a different hemisphere.  The basic intention or focus of a Sabbat working, however, remains the same and any Coven member worth their salt can extract the salient points of the group ritual and adapt them for solitary working proving they understand that the reason for the working is …

  • To re-charge the ‘group-mind’;
  • To empower individual members;
  • To re-charge pouches and personal ritual equipment;
  • To focus the members on being part of a working group;
  • To reinforce the meaning of a particular Sabbat;
  • As an affirmation of loyalty to the Tradition by the sharing of bread and salt;
  • And as an affirmation of faith and trust in the Ancestors.

All members of the Coven are welcome to attend the Sabbat both in person and at a distance but once again this requires a great deal of effort on the part of the Dame and Magister to get things organised.  We’ve often set up a distance working and wondered if we’re playing to an empty theatre, since there’s nothing coming back on the astral!  This is doubly annoying because we’ve taken the time to prepare the ritual/pathworking/exercise aimed at members of all levels (which ain’t easy) and no one’s bothering to come to the party – because if we were being left to our own devices, then rest assured we’d much rather be going for something with a lot more ooomph! and pushing own magical boundaries on a personal level.

It is possible to sychronise a ‘live’ Sabbat with those far, far away but again this takes a lot of physical, mental and magical organisiation.  The ‘script’ has to be compiled and circulated with time allowed for any points to be clarified because, despite many years of study, there are those who still don’t get it.  Like the regular excuse: ‘I couldn’t do [time and/or date] so I waited until the next Saturday, is that okay?’  NO! it bloody isn’t! If the Sabbat had been arranged for a certain date, time and location at your local working site and you’d missed it … would you expect to turn up a week later and still expect us to be there???

If we’ve arranged with the Dame-Magister to sychronise our working with that of the Coven, we will propably be working to a pre-set time-table so that power-raising can be co-ordinated with a view to contributing to the re-charging of the group mind-set.  Be assured that it may take some time before we notice any tangible results but records should be kept in our magical journal and provide regular feed-back or we may find ourselves out of the loop.

It is possible to adapt group rituals for solitary workings if we know our Craft – and members should try as near as possible to emulate the Sabbat working by repeating the Dame’s Compass-casting,; the Magister’s invocation and the Invoking (and Banishing) Pentagrams, followed by the Dance/Chant in order to raise energy within the personal Compass … if there is room. In order to transfer any surplus energy to the group at the end of the ritual, hold up both hands facing North (in the direction as the Coven Stang) and visualize pushing the energy in that direction.  The Compass should be closed down in the normal way by saying …

Kinship to kinship; blood to blood,

May there be peace and honour between us now and forever. 

Hail and farewell. 

… followed by the customary ‘cakes and ale’ or whatever you choose to use to earth yourself after the rite.

This is an extract from our limited edition publication Round About the Cauldron Go …

Camp Fire Coven

by Carrie West

Fire is the focus of our Coven meetings – either as a symbolic fire-pit in the garden, or a more ambitious cooking fire in the great outdoors where we celebrate a fire festival with a shared meal around the glowing embers.  Fire gives light and warmth but it is also extremely destructive if not properly contained – its symbolism is wildly varied depending on the circumstances of its use and creation.  Within Craft it is seen as the only one of the four elements we can create for ourselves and therefore it is the link between gods and mortals whether generated by a roaring bonfire or the light from a single candle flame. 

Needless to say, it is necessary to take some form of precautionary measures in hand in order to guard against inadvertently causing wild-fire because not every coven is fortunate enough to have a former fire-chief amongst their members!  And while controlled fire can be beneficial for the environment, one caused by flying sparks or an inadequately extinguished bonfire can be devastating in a season of very dry weather. Ideally, all witches working outdoors should hold a Craft equivalent of the scouting fire-safety merit badge, since one coven of our acquaintance regularly lit their bonfire with a whole box of fire-lighters and a bottle of white spirit!  It’s a wonder the whole wood didn’t go up in flames and them with it.

The cauldron is, of course, a traditional witch’s possession.  The originals were made of cast iron and used to feed the family group; while small reproductions are now used to burn loose incense on a charcoal disc, to make black salt (used in banishing rituals), for mixing herbs, or to burn paper spells (with Names of Power or wishes written on them). Cauldrons symbolize the Old Lass and when miniatures versions are placed on an altar they represent Elemental Earth because used in this capacity it is a working tool. There are numerous myths and legends cast around this most functional of coven equipment and whilst the symbolism is all part of our folk-heritage, our version wasused for the purpose for which it was intended: to cook enough food for a large group of people – to symbolize plenty.

In truth, genuine cast iron, three-legged pot-bellied cauldrons are rare indeed and they weigh a ton. A witch-friend was lucky enough to have a monster gifted to her and decided that this authentic vessel would be used to celebrate the next fire festival.  Now their working site was a wondrous place but getting to it could be likened to a commando assault course.  By the time this weighty vessel had been lugged across two fields and over a small ravine, half the contents had been spilled (to the benefit of the local wild-life) and the Man in Black was developing definite homicidal thoughts towards his Lady.  The exercise was not repeated and after that single outing the cauldron stayed at home beside the hearth filled with logs, dried grasses and flowers.

Our acceptable alternative is the army field-kitchen ‘dixie’ (that Phillip remembers from his scouting days) and like many army terms ‘dixie’ is of Indian origin, from the Hindi degshi for cooking pot.  These are large three-gallon oval pots with lids and can literally contain enough to feed an army!  Dixies are available from army surplus stores and websites at only a fraction of the weight and cost of an antique cauldron – witches have always learned to adapt and improvise – and a dixie is perfect for outdoor cooking.

As glamorous as it sounds, al fresco witchcraft is not practical without a lot of preparation. After many years, however, we eventually got it sussed – one arrives at the site well in advance, lights the fire and sets the pre-cooked stew to heat up – by using a tripod and a hanging pot.  Supper was often transported in insulated containers to keep it as hot as possible and emptied into the cooking pot so that the delicious smell greeting the coven made all the extra effort worth-while. Perfectly adequate tripods and pot sets can now be purchased from Amazon at a reasonable price.  Purists, of course, will insist on doing everything from scratch on site but unless the coven members have cast iron stomachs they’ll still be sitting there waiting for the ‘feast’ when the sun comes up. But it’s a guaranteed way of causing Irritable Witch Syndrome in even the most resolute of coven members.

Camp-fire cookery is an art in itself and since the whole idea of a Sabbat gathering is to generate power, the Dame and Magister need to be able to organise seamless rituals that aren’t marred by catering problems. Nevertheless, by synchronising our own Coven rituals with the days of the Old Calendar we are drawing down the power of the Ancestors to re-charge the ‘group-mind’ of the present Coven.  By utilising power that has accumulated down through the centuries from successive generations of witches who gathered together to celebrate their Sabbat/Esbat on this very day over hundreds of years, we are ensuring that Old Craft survives into the next century. Kindred calls to kindred, blood calls to blood’… linking those that are kindred by token of a common ancestry and a united by a blood-bond to the Ancestors.

Extract from Round About the Cauldron Go … by Phillip Wright and Carrie West, a limited edition title published by Ignotus Press UK – not available on general release.

The (Inner-City) Path

by Melusine Draco

The (Inner-City) Path was inspired by Chet Raymo’s book of similar title that chronicled his own daily urban walk to work and observing the seasonal changes with a scientist’s curiosity. As often happens, I began thinking ‘what if’ there was a complementary book written from a pagan perspective for when we take to our local urban paths as part of our daily fitness regime or dog walk. And, as if arising from this external creative impulse The Path began to unravel in the mind’s eye … based on several urban walks that have merged together over the years to make a chapbook of the seasons and to offer a glimpse into the pagan mind-set that can ‘find mystery under every leaf and rock along the way’, or caught in the murmur of running water, and to act as a simple guide to achieving a sense of well-being and awareness so that even in the city’s throng we feel the freshness of the streams’ as per Longfellow’s ‘Prelude’ …

Summer – the Path of Flowers

Since prehistory, the Summer Solstice has been seen as a significant time of year in many cultures, and has been marked by diverse festivals and rituals. According to the astronomical definition of the seasons, the summer solstice also marks the beginning of summer, which lasts until the Autumnal Equinox (22nd or 23rd September in the Northern Hemisphere, or 20th or 21st March in the Southern Hemisphere). Traditionally, the Summer Solstice is seen as the middle of summer and referred to as ‘Midsummer’. Within the Arctic Circle (for the northern hemisphere) or Antarctic Circle (for the southern hemisphere), there is continuous daylight around the Summer Solstice.

The woods of The Path with its scattering of fading bluebells, horsetails and ferns, have a primeval feel about them as spring descends into summer; and when the trees are full of leaf, it is easy to image that we are tramping through Wildwood even though we are never more than a few hundred yards from our village or town. The urban woods along The Path are somewhat unkempt and before the wooded path opens out into the meadow there is a sturdy oak which is exposed to the full force of the westerly winds. The branches on the windward side break the gusts: the trunk and the dark, sturdier branches don’t give an inch, the smaller branches and twigs sway but a little. Then a branch breaks off … Next to the oak is a silver birch that sways

and bends with the force of the summer storm …

Later, we recall the buffeting of the wind and feel so much empathy for the two trees that we can almost experience or perceive what forces were at play. We can feel the resistance and stiffness of the oak, and how futile this resistance is when a branch gets broken off. With the birch, we can feel how it surrenders itself to the wind and how supple and pliable the tree is. We can attribute resistance to an oak and pliability to a birch and if these concepts are correct, then we will be able to recognise them in all the different parts of these trees. We will see it in the leaves (the tough, unbending leaves of the oak and the light rustling leaves of the birch) and the seeds (the heavy acorn with the hard shell, the light birch seeds which carry on the wind) … [Psychology Today]

It is the Ash tree, however, that has a host of folklore surrounding it. The ash along with the oak is one of the last trees to come into leaf and according to country lore, the one that comes into leaf first, gives us an indication as to what the weather will be like for the summer: “Ash before the Oak, you can expect a soak, but Oak before the Ash, expect a little splash” The fascination of the ash tree traces its roots to the ancient times. The Druids believed that it had the ability to direct and blend the masculine and feminine energy, using a branch of the ash to make their staffs. The staff then acted as a connection between the realms of the earth and the sky. A staff of ash is hung over door frames for protection as it will ward off evil influences; while ash leaves can be scattered in the four directions to protect the house against negative and psychic attacks – but despite its traditional role in protecting against witches, the ash is also extensively used by them.

The ash is often found growing near sacred wells and it has been suggested that there is a connection between the tree and the healing waters of the well (possibly iron contained in the roots and leeching into the well). The tree itself can sometimes supply ‘holy’ water as the bole of the ash often has a hollow in it like a shallow bowl; the water that gathers in this is well known for its healing properties. This could be a good example of a ‘bile’ – a sacred tree. Sailors also believed that if they carved a piece of ash wood into the shape of a solar cross and carried it with them then they would be protected from drowning. A solar cross, consisting of an equilateral cross inside a circle ⊕ is frequently found in the symbolism of prehistoric cultures, particularly during the Neolithic to Bronze Age periods of European prehistory.

The oak, birch and ash are common tree along The Path and we should make an effort to recognize and understand the lifecycle of these three sacred trees that are tightly bound into our folk-, country- and Craft-lore. As we leave the woods and step onto The Path that borders the meadow our attention is caught by the plants that adorn the verge of hard-packed earth and stones: daisies, dandelions and filmy cow parsley. Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), grows in sunny to semi-shaded locations in meadows and at the edges of hedgerows and woodland. It is related to other diverse members of the Apiaceae family, such as parsley, carrot, hemlock and hogweed – and often confused with Daucus carota which is known as Queen Anne’s lace or wild carrot and mistaken for several similar-looking poisonous plants, among them poison hemlock and fool’s parsley.

From where The Path exits the woods it is only a few minutes before we come to the plank bridge over a brook fringed with forget-me-nots. The plank bridge is one of our favourite places to dawdle with the pond on one side and the brook making its way back into the woods on the other. On one side the water lies dark and deep in a languid pool where dragonflies and nymphs hover over the still surface (perfect for scrying); and from this bridge the slope of the water meadow basks in late summer sunlight and autumn mists since the surrounding ancient woodland was cut back for agricultural reasons. ‘It is widely acknowledged that a landscape of open fields, trees and brooks is what humans consider most beautiful,’ observes Chet Raymo.

In the water meadow we can find an olde English favourite: Meadowsweet from the Anglo- Saxon meodu-swete meaning ‘Mead sweetener’. The plant’s herbal uses had a base in scientific

fact; in common with many other folk and herbal remedies, in the 19th century, chemists isolated salicylic acid from meadowsweet to use as a disinfectant that not only made rooms smell better but helped the fight against bacteria. It was one of the three herbs considered sacred by the Druids: the others being vervain and water mint.  Creamy, perennial of damp waysides, meadows, marshes and woods, this tall plant flowers from June to September, and with a heavy fragrance, the flower heads are frequently visited by bees attracted by the heavy scent which can be so evocative of summer days in the countryside. In spite of this fragrance, however, the flowers produce no nectar. Insects, however, don’t realise this but their visits serve to fertilise the plants which are heavy with pollen. A peculiarity of this flower is that the scent of the leaves is quite different from that of the flowers, the leaves having a heavy almond-like aroma whereas the flowers have a strong sweet smell.

Meadowsweet was historically known as Bridewort because it was strewn on the ground at hand-fastings for the bride to walk on (wort is an old word that means herb or root) and it was also used in wedding posies and bridal bouquets. Meadowsweet was also spread on the floor in medieval times to provide a nice smell and deter insects. This plant was given to Cúchulainn in liquid form and it was said to calm his fits of rage and outbreaks of fever and it may be for this reason that another name for meadowsweet in Ireland is Cuchulainn’s Belt or Crios Conchulainn. It is also associated with death as the scent of its flowers was said to induce a sleep that was deep and fatal. However, in County Galway it was believed that if a person was wasting away because of faerie influence then putting some meadowsweet under the bed ensured that they would be cured by the morning.

All along the water courses most Willow species grow and thrive and this theme is reflected in the legends and magic associated with these trees. The willow muse, called Heliconian (after Helike), was sacred to poets, and the Greek poet Orpheus carried willow branches on his adventures in the Underworld. He was also given a lyre by Apollo, and it is interesting to note that the sound-boxes of harps used to be carved from solid willow wood. The willow is also associated with the fey and the ‘Wind in the Willows’ is said to be the whisperings of a faerie in

the ear of a poet.

Willow was often the tree most sought by village wise-women, since it has so many medicinal properties, and eventually its healing and religious qualities became one and the tree became called a ‘witch’s tree’. The willow is associated with enchantment, wishing, romantic love, healing, protection, fertility, death, femininity, divination friendship, joy, love, and peace. Placed in homes, willow branches protect against evil and malign sorcery. Carried, the wood bestows bravery, dexterity, and helps to overcome the fear of death. If we knock on a willow tree (‘knock on wood’) this will avert evil. A willow growing near a home will protect it from danger, while they are also good trees to plant around cemeteries and for lining graves because of its symbolism of death and protection.

Willow can also be used in rituals for intuition, knowledge, gentle nurturing, and will elucidate the feminine qualities of both men and women. When a person needs to get something off their chest or to share a secret, if they confess to a Willow, their secret will be trapped. Also, wishes are granted by a willow if they are asked for in the correct manner. Willow leaves, bark and wood add energy to healing magic, and burning a mix of willow bark and sandalwood during the waning moon can help to conjure spirits. Uses of willow in love talismans include using the leaves to attract love. The tree is linked to grief and in the 16th and 17th centuries jilted lover poems were written that included reference to the tree. In Irish folklore it couldn’t be more different as it was called sail ghlann grin or the ‘bright cheerful sallow’. There it was considered

lucky to take a sally-rod with you on a journey and sally withies were placed around a milk churn to ensure good butter. It was believed that the charcoal left behind after burning willow could be crushed and spread on the back of an animal as a way of increasing fertility and even restoring hair.

Needless to say, country folk have long been familiar with the healing properties of willow. They made an infusion from the bitter bark as a remedy for colds and fevers, and to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatism. Young willow twigs were also chewed to relieve pain. In the early 19th century modern science isolated the active ingredient responsible, salicylic acid, which was also found in the meadowsweet plant.

As we follow the brook back through the wood along a different pathway, in the sunlit glades swathes of foxgloves stand tall above the bracken. A well-loved plant, the whole foxglove plant is extremely poisonous, but provides a source of digitalis used by doctors in heart medicine. The foxglove was believed to keep evil at bay if grown in the garden, but it was considered unlucky to bring the blooms inside the house. The name derives from the shape of the flowers resembling

the fingers of a glove – ‘folk’s glove’ meaning belonging to the Faere Folk and folklore tells that a bad faerie gave the flowers to the fox to put on his feet to soften his steps whilst hunting. In Irish folklore it was said that if a child was wasting away then it was under the influence of the faerie (fairy stroke) and foxglove was given to counteract this as it was known to revive people.

One such remedy was the juice of twelve leaves taken daily. It could also work for adults, such a person would be given a drink made from the leaves, if they were not too far gone, they would drink it and get sick but then recover. However, if they were completely under the spell of the faerie then they would refuse to drink. An amulet of foxglove could also cure the urge to keep travelling that resulted when anyone stepped onto the faerie grass, the ‘stray sod’ or fód seachrán. In Ireland it is also believed that the foxglove will nod its head if one of the ‘gentry’ pass by.

And it’s not just in the woods and fields that Nature is lush and tropical and green, because as The Path takes us passed the allotments, we can find the lushness reflected in the vegetable plots and gardens. In the overgrown orchard some of the old trees are still capable of producing a good crop after the warm, damp start to the year. With our newly discovered vision we relish the sight of all this bounty that is the result of sore backs and chapped hands during the cold and wet of the seedtime. As harvest approaches, we can appreciate the fruit of their labours by proxy since friendly gardeners often have surplus stocks that they gladly share with their neighbours.

Exercise: A Sense of Contemplation

Don’t get carried away by a new-found enthusiasm but commit to contemplate today – and only today. It is not necessary to commit to contemplation tomorrow, or every day for a week, a month, a year because over-commitment is a sure-fire recipe for procrastination. If you have the opportunity for five minutes contemplation today – contemplate today. If you have the opportunity to contemplate tomorrow – contemplate tomorrow. Contemplation is the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time. It is not a relaxation exercise or meditation but while it may contribute to us becoming more relaxed, this is simply a side effect. Contemplation is profound thinking about something and here we select something from the natural world where we can sit and stare – for example – at bees on a clover patch, lavender plant or butterfly bush (buddleia).

Doctorates in Bioenergetic Medicine and teachers of the ancient Egyptian healing and spiritual tradition, Meredith McCord and Jill Schumacher tell us that in ancient Egypt the humming sound of the bee was said to stimulate the release of super hormones known as the ‘Elixirs of Metamorphosis’, as the sound also resonates the ventricular chambers in the center of the brain, which are filled with cerebrospinal fluid that acts as a cushion for the brain’s cortex, providing basic mechanical and immunological protection to the brain inside the skull. The good doctors claim that the humming sounds of bees also resonate and stimulate various other structures of the brain, including the pineal gland, pituitary gland, the hypothalamus that link the nervous system to the endocrine system, and amygdala, which is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and

memory.

Five minutes contemplation in the company of these small creatures can open up worlds that we would otherwise not bother to think about – and it’s an added incentive to create areas in our garden that are bee-friendly for our own benefit, too. Invest is a couple of bee boxes to encourage queen bees to lay eggs and repopulate your own garden next spring.

The Wild Larder

We can also treasure the time spent alone foraging. The repetition of gathering wild food allows the mind to relax – we can’t fret about household chores and work when we’re out there stocking

up our wild larder. The creamy-white flowers of the Elder can be found in woods, hedgerows and waste places and as Richard Mabey writes in Food For Free:

…to see the mangy, decaying skeletons of elders in the winter, we would not think the tree was any use to man or beast. Nor would the acrid stench of the young leaves in spring change your opinion. But by the end of June the whole shrub is covered with great sprays of sweet-smelling flowers, for which there are probably more uses than any other single species of blossom…

Elderflowers can be eaten fresh from the shrub on a hot summer’s day and have the taste of a frothy ice-cream soda; while the flowers separated from the stalks make a remarkable sparkling wine. Dipped in batter the flower-heads can be deep-fried and served as fritters to end a summer meal. The berries are small and green at first, ripening to deep purple clusters that weigh down the branches. These are made into wine, chutney, jellies and ketchup.

Any witch worth her salt, of course, knows that the elder is also known as the ‘poor man’s medicine chest’ due to the wide range of herbal remedies that can be got from the shrub. The flowers are utilised to raise the resistance to respiratory infections, and ointment made from elder flowers is excellent for chilblains and stimulating localised circulation. The flowers are also used in hay fever treatments for their anti-catarrhal properties. Medicinally, both the berries and the flowers encourage fever response and stimulates sweating, which prevents very high temperatures and provides an important channel for detoxification. To cure warts, rub them with a green elder twig which should then be buried. As the wood rots so the wart will disappear.

The (Inner city) Path: A Simple Guide to Well-Being and Awareness by Melusine Draco is published in Moon Book’s Pagan Portals series ISBN 978 1 78904 464 5 : 78 pages : UK£6.99/US$10.95 in paperback and e-book format.

The tides of Summer: Calan Haf-Beltaine

With Julie Dexter – Dame of Coven of the Scales

The whole essence of traditional British Old Craft is closely bound to the natural tides that govern our planet. When we organised our own Coven activities, these were focussed on drawing down an elemental power to synchronise with the traditional Sabbats and Esbats, thus ensuring the Coven developing a ‘group mind’ of its own that nonetheless periodically needs to be recharged via group ritual.  This also explains why Old Crafters synchronise those rituals to coincide with the Old Julian calendar that links us directly to the power of the Ancestors rather than any contemporary ‘wheel of the year’. Kindred calls to kindred, blood calls to blood. The modern Gregorian calendar is now thirteen days out of alignment and will be fourteen days adrift from 2100 – but magically a miss is as good as a mile!

A witch needs to be on familiar, operational-terms with these times and tides of the witch’s true year – not just the solar and lunar tides but the oceanic, earth and atmospheric tides that can also enhance/affect our magical workings.  We must also understand that some tides are more beneficial than others for recharging the ‘group mind’ of the Coven so that we as individuals can draw upon these currents of elemental power to energise our own spells at any time. This elemental power is marked in the charting of the stars, and while the stars are not generally used as sources of power they can also act as a celestial barometer for the calendaric ebb and flow.  This is the witch-power we channel when we work magic – either singly or as a group – and it makes sense to take these various different tides into consideration and utilise them to our best advantage whenever we can.  There’s nothing to stop us from working against the tide but this is self-defeating when it is easier to go with the natural flow of Nature and the cosmos.

These natural tides can and do affect the way we live, work and think although we may not be conscious of the power they have over this little old planet of ours; ask any midwife, who’ll tell you that there are more births when there’s a full moon. By understanding when these tides occur may shed a light on why we may react differently at times without knowing why; it may also explain why we can be magically/psychically hyper/receptive at certain times and not at others.

Lunar:  All of us are so familiar with the moon cycle that nothing really needs to be added, except that we have added one or two lunar exercises throughout the text that might prove useful.

Solar:  According to NASA, solar activity is indeed currently ramping up toward what is known as solar maximum, something that occurs approximately every eleven years. This same solar cycle has occurred over millennia and although the explosive heat of a solar flare can’t make it all the way to our Earth, electromagnetic radiation and energetic particles certainly can. Solar flares can temporarily alter the upper atmosphere creating disruptions with signal transmission from, say, a GPS satellite to Earth causing it to be off by many yards.  Solar activity can also affect the strength of oceanic tides. 

Solar winds affect the Earth by the intense clouds of high energy particles that are produced by solar storms. When these clouds, called coronal mass ejections, make their way to the Earth in three-four days, they collide with the magnetic field of the Earth and cause it to change its shape.

Solar wind disrupts our magnetosphere because as the wind flows toward Earth, it carries with it the Sun’s magnetic field. It moves very fast, then smacks right into Earth’s magnetic field – causing a shock to our magnetic protection, which can result in turbulence.  If we are strongly affiliated to Elemental Fire we may find it advantageous to familiarize ourselves with this solar cycle and see whether it does affect us on a metaphysical level.

 Oceanic: An ocean tide refers to the cyclic rise and fall of seawater. Tides are caused by slight variations in gravitational attraction between the Earth and the Moon and the Sun in geometric relationship with locations on the Earth’s surface. There are generally three types of tides: diurnal – one high and low tide each day; semi-diurnal – two high and low tides each day; and mixed – two high and low tides each day of different heights.

And if we earn our living on the ocean, we’d better know how to read a tide table. Around the world, most coastal communities witness sea level rise and fall multiple times every day. The effect can be quite dramatic: on certain days, there’s a 53-foot difference between the low and high tides in Canada’s Minas Bay Inlet. Working fishermen, divers and ship captains must take fluctuations like these into account and for this reason, governments release tables that predict the heights of future tides for different corners of the oceans.

The ocean isn’t the only body of water that experiences its own tides. Lakes undergo them as well, but on a much smaller scale. For example, the mightiest tides on North America’s Great Lakes are only 0.4 inches high.  If we are strongly affiliated to Elemental Water we may find it advantageous to familiarize ourselves with this oceanic cycle – even if we live nowhere near the coast -and see whether it does affect us on a metaphysical level.

Atmospheric tides are ubiquitous features of the Earth’s atmosphere. They are the persistent global oscillations that are observed in all types of atmospheric fields, including wind, temperature, pressure and density.  Several studies have found evidence that a rise in temperature or a fall in barometric pressure, which often accompanies a thunderstorm, may trigger a headache or migraine. While some people cite simply a ‘change in weather’ as their trigger, and others can pin down more specific weather changes like high or low temperatures, humidity, sunlight, wind speed, and dew point.  During a storm, cold and warm air collide, creating an extreme difference in barometric (or air) pressure. In addition, sferics, which are electromagnetic impulses produced by lightning, may also trigger migraines. If we are strongly affiliated to Elemental Air we may find it advantageous to familiarize ourselves with these atmospheric tides and see whether they do affect us on a metaphysical level.

Earth: Unbeknownst to many of us, the ground beneath our feet experiences tides of its own. The phenomenon goes by many names, including ‘land tides’ and ‘Earth tides’ but no matter what we call the process, it’s caused by the same forces that generate our better-known oceanic tides. High ocean tides – at least in most parts of the world – happen twice a day. While this is happening, a similar cycle unfolds within the very crust of our planet. To a miniscule degree, the ground level itself rises and falls every day in accordance with the moon’s whereabouts.

“The motion extends through the whole of the solid earth, not just the crust, but is largest at the surface,” explains geophysicist at the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  A recent geological survey investigating the link between the fortnight cycle, land tides and seismic activity along California’s San Andreas Fault explained that when the Earth’s crust flexes in the direction of the tidal pull, this puts a stress on any tectonic faults that cut through the rock. If the combination of the tidal stress and the pre-existing tectonic stress is just right, this can set off an earthquake. They also found that the rate of low-frequency ‘quakes’ increases right before the fortnightly cycle enters its solar/lunar alignment stage.

Nearer to home, a nationwide survey by a team from the Ordnance Survey and the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory showed that parts of Britain ‘bounce’ by four inches twice a day and the most wobbly counties are Devon and Cornwall.  The movement is caused as tides ebb and flow twice daily and the deformation of Earth’s crust varies across the country. The East is much more stable than the West because when the tide was in, the extra weight of water on the continental shelf pushed the adjoining crust down a few inches. At low tide, the Earth springs back and since tidal ranges are greater on the south-western side of the British Isles that is where the biggest bounce can be found.  Devon, Cornwall, Pembrokeshire, the Western Isles and southern Ireland, had the biggest range of movements – more than four inches, twice a day. Satellite measurements have shown how the British Isles are tilting upwards, with Scotland rising by about two millimetres each year, and the South-East declining by a similar amount. This movement of bulges, inflations and wrinkles, can be seen from an altitude of 500 miles.  If we are strongly affiliated to Elemental Earth we may find it advantageous to familiarize ourselves with these land tides and see whether they do affect us on a metaphysical level.

As part of the exploration of these various different tides it is necessary for each of us, as an individual, to go out and discover them for ourselves, simply because, as we are all unalike the various dissimilar locations in which we live can all produce conflicting results. We also have to take into account whether we are strongly influenced by the other Elements.  In Power of the Elements by Mélusine Draco, we are introduced to the concept of each Element having many other different facets influencing its purity or effectiveness. By using the Court Cards of our favourite Tarot Deck we can begin to identify with what causes those peculiarities that make us say we don’t identify with our own particular Star Sign:

Leo, for example, is represented by Elemental Fire and is identified with the Knight (or King) of Wands but his ‘family’ is made up of the Princess (the Earthy part of Fire) and the Prince (the Airy part of Fire) of Wands … and the Queen of Wands (the Watery part of Fire). Adrien, being an Aquarian and a professionally trained singer and dancer who, according to our the conversations is more geared towards the Watery Part of Air, while I’m an untypical Piscean wired for the Fiery Part of Water in my youth and the Earthy Part of Water in my later years. The current Magister of Coven of the Scales is a Leo and a former Fire Chief who obviously relates to the Fiery part of Fire; while the Dame is a Virgo and a lawyer who associates with the Airy Part of Earth. As they get older and develop magically, it will be interesting to see whether these ‘parts’ are subject to change.

We can see that this Elemental identification is very much an individual thing and it should be evident why no one else can make that identification for you since there are a dozen different interpretations for our zodiacal star sign: each often being diametrically opposite to the other.  This is the stepping off point … the going it alone stage … when we put all that we have learned into practice and start researching.  This is not a book for beginners and has been written for those who have advanced in the Craft enough to be looking at the next stage of their journey … learning … re-learning … and sometimes discarding old conventions of the Tradition while developing new perspectives. An essential part of this journey is that we begin to know ourselves. The Dame tells me that several members of the Coven have found the following path-working has assisted with this:

“At the entrance to the Temple of Delphi, occupied by the famous oracle, were the words “know thyself”. This sentiment would be important if you were going to listen to any prophesies the Sybil had to offer and make sense of them;  if you knew what your normal reaction would be to a particular situation, you could partially predict the outcome. If you wanted to change a particular outcome, then you would have to perhaps alter your usual type of reaction and, in doing so, adjust your own fate, so the ability to “know thyself” allows you to have a little more control of life.

 Getting to know yourself is not necessarily an easy task. As Melusine Draco says in The Path to the Mysteries, to change anything you need to change yourself first, and to do that, we first have to know ourselves – “..and that step is often the most frightening because many of us don’t want to face these facets of our personality or character that lurk in the shadows”.  The following path working is to assist us to know ourselves:

Sit comfortably and relax, closing your eyes if that helps you to focus. Feel any tensions slowly leave your body and breathe in for three breaths through your nose, then out for three breaths through the mouth. Repeat this four times or until you’re fully relaxed.

It is a clear, bright day and you are standing on the seashore. You can feel a slight breeze on your face and can taste the salt tang on the air. The sound of the sea coming up and down the shore is rhythmic and you can hear the seagulls shriek as they wheel overhead. You have no shoes and socks on and can feel your feet on the damp warm sand. You dig your feet in and can feel the grains scrunch between your toes.

You look behind you and can see cliffs and, over to your right is what seems to be an opening in the cliff face. You decide to go and explore: walking over the sand you can feel your feet sinking in to the sand as the firmness of the beach gives way as you tread on it. You reach the opening: It’s dark inside, but there is a blue/green glow towards the back of what is a cave. You clamber over rocks, your feet feeling the roughness, and see that the light is coming from a rock pool. It has a large smooth bolder next to it and you sit down. The bolder feels cool and hard under your weight. You smell the damp, seaweedy smell in the cave, which is colder than outside, and you can hear droplets of water dripping from the ceiling.

You gaze down in to the pool: it is a clear aquamarine and you can see fish swimming there and other sea creatures. You look for the bottom of the pool, but realize you cannot see the bottom. As you look in to it, the pool becomes darker and any ripples disappear. You can no longer see the sea creatures, since the pool looks like a dark sheet of black glass. You look in to it: What do you see? Look at the image. Is it you? Perhaps there is no image. Can you see anything to the left or right? Take some time to study what you see. After a while, a large drop of water drips from the ceiling overhead and in to the pool. The ripples disperse the darkness and the clarity returns, with the fish and sea creatures going about their business.

You clamber back over the rocks and walk back along the seashore, taking deep breaths of sea air. You stand at the seashore and feel the damp sand beneath your feet and the sun on your face, warming you. Take three deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth, as before. Open your eye, if you had them closed, stand up, shake your hands and feet and ground yourself. Have some light refreshment to bring you firmly back in to the here and now.

     1. What did you see in the reflection, if anything?

     2. Did you see yourself?

     3. What does this mean to you?”

As you work through this book and do the practical work, you will find out much more about yourself as a witch and where your Craft is taking you.

Our Dame has selected this extract from the limited edition Ignotus Press publication, Round About the Cauldron Go … by Phillip Wright and Carrie West and it gives us a great deal of pleasure to be able to share snippets from our inner ways of working on the MD Blog because this book is not available for general purchase.

An Alternative Paganism

Regardless of weather,

The moon shines the same;

It is the drifting clouds

That make it seem different

On different nights

     Basho

Zen and the Art of Positive Paganism by Melusine Draco

For the seeker of a spiritual mindset without the need for religious belief, the practical simplicities of this approach to animism make it very appealing to the Western perceptions with its twenty-first-century scepticism. Despite being around for millennia, Shinto has no founder, no scriptures and for a long time didn’t even have a name. The reverence shown by the Japanese toward Nature, however, stems from Shinto’s most ancient and fundamental belief that kami govern the natural world and inhabit every aspect of it – the rocks, trees, pools, waterfalls, the flora and fauna, and even natural phenomenon all have their own kami – or spirit energy. The world is inhabited by kami.

The sky, the flowers, the trees and the beautiful landscape speak to the Shintoist and Zen practitioner of beauty and purity. And so the animist in us looks upon such sights with reverence because we feel the awe in the presence of the pure loveliness of which we are so deeply aware … and the sacred essence, that manifests in all those multiple forms. Kami and people exist within the same world and share its interrelated complexity. Kami refers particularly to that power of phenomena which inspires this sense of wonder and awe [the sacred] in the beholder, testifying to its divinity. Nature is venerated and nothing is too small to be of importance.

And there were always the great festivals dating back to the Heian dynasty towards the end of the tenth century mentioned by Sei Shonagon in her Pillow Book: ‘the New Year and the Blue Horses in winter; the Hollyhock Festival in spring; the summer festival of the Iris, festivals for the Dead, for Chrysanthemums, for First Fruits, and, in October, the exciting Gosechi Dances …’

Despite the multitude of cultural, historical, mythological and purely national events, the Shinto calendar is still full of interesting holidays, rituals and festivals – some of which can easily be adapted to Western style celebration and observance without involving any religious commitment. Nevertheless, these practices can still provide a channel through which human beings are able to communicate with the festive spirit (kami) realm. The following are a few of the simple cross-cultural family or agrarian festivals that would easily adapt to the West because they often coincide with our celebrations of contemporary paganism and traditional folk-festivals.

Silently sitting by the window.

Leaves fall and flowers bloom.

The seasons come and go.

Could there be a better life?

January

In the New Year each house sets up two pines in front of the gate or doorway, one on each side. This decoration is called matukazari (‘pine decoration’) or kadomatu (‘gate pine’). In certain places, the decoration is limited to pine-trees only, whereas in others, bamboo and plum are used as well. This custom is several hundreds of years old, but its form has changed little by little during its long history. The reason why the pine-tree plays so important a part in the New Year celebrations is that its leaves are evergreen, and it withstands both heat and cold, remaining fresh and vivid throughout the four seasons, and attains an exceeding great age: thus it has the meaning of ‘prosperity unchanging forever’, and the pine-tree serves as the symbolic expression of this. From olden times, the pine has been chosen as the flower for January (Floral Calendar of Japan).

With the New Year also comes a series of personal and domestic festivals that are performed annually for the benefit of house and home. For example:

1 January Kakizome

This is the first calligraphy writing of the year in Japan but it is something we can copy on New Year’s Day in the West. Make a wish or charm for what you hope the year will bring. Create a simple poem containing words that echo your wishes. Write it in decorative script and add elaborate decoration as a border around the words. Slowly read your words and wishes. Then burn the paper in a fire-proof vessel and release the charm to the elements. Toast the future in sake or wine.

1–3January O-shogatsu (New Year)
Shinto shrines around Japan hold New Year festivals where visitors come to pray for good fortune and good health for the coming year. Similarly in Buddhist temples, visitors come to mark the changing of the year. If you have your own special outdoor place where you go for a moment of quiet spiritual contemplation, now is a good time to pay a visit.

8 January Dondo Yaki
Corresponds with the modern Twelfth Night celebrations when mochi (rice cakes) are toasted over fires of burning New Year decorations.

10 January Toka Ebisu

This is the first major festival of the year – Toka means the tenth day, and Ebisu is the god of good fortune in business and prosperity. Though centred on 10 January, this festival actually lasts for five days from the eighth until the twelfth and during this time thousands of visitors crowd into a shrine to conduct a simple ritual of prayer for ongoing success in their work and business. Ebisu is one of the Shichifukujin, the Seven Lucky Gods of Japanese folklore, who are traditionally associated with the New Year and is the only one of these seven whose story is home-grown Japanese. Many people buy branches of lucky bamboo grass, called Fuku-Zasa which has been blessed in a special ritual by a shrine maiden. They then buy more lucky charms and talismans, which they attach to the bamboo branch. These charms come in all kinds of designs, but two of the most common are treasure boats for wealth and red sea bream for future success. Why not buy a lucky bamboo ‘career’ plant for the garden (keep it in a pot as bamboo is very invasive) and add paper charms relating to your business or career as the situation demands.

14 January Seijin no Hi (Coming of Age Day)

This is a Japanese holiday held annually on the second Monday of January. It is held in order to congratulate and encourage all those who have reached the ago of majority (20 years of age) during the past year, and to recognise they have become adults. Festivities include formal ‘coming of age ceremonies’, as well as after-parties among family and friends. Although ‘coming of age’ ceremonies have been celebrated in Japan since at least 714AD  – when a young prince donned new robes and hairstyle to mark his passage into adulthood – the modern holiday was first established in 1948. Coming of age ceremonies (Seijin-shiki) reflect both the expanded rights but also increased responsibilities expected of new adults and offer the opportunity to celebrate a family member’s ‘coming of age’ if a formal celebration wasn’t possible on the actual birth date. Give a gift of some family heirloom that signifies your recognition of their attaining maturity – which is, of course, eighteen or twenty -one in the West.

16 Tokuwa no Tenjinsai

In recognition of the scholars in the family starting back to school or university, offer up a prayer to Tenjin, the Japanese god of scholarship and learning – or his Western equivalent. And make a small ‘good luck’ gift to aid their studies.

February

In this season of intense cold, the flower that blossoms in the face of the frost and snow is the utne (Prunus mume: plum tree), which has been held in great esteem by the Japanese people from ancient times due to the length of the tree’s life, the way in which the beautiful flowers unexpectedly come out from the old trunks having a charm of their own, the noble appearance of the blossoms, and the delicate fragrance which they emit in the depth of winter when nearly all other flowers are as yet asleep. The opening of the plum-blossoms may be said to be the first tidings of spring and the flower for February (Floral Calendar of Japan).

Many of the annual celebrations are fire festivals, just the same as folk-festivals in the West with a lead up to the beginning of spring.

1–2 February Kurokawa Noh
Ceremonial parades and seven sacred noh plays mark the beginning of the New Year, so why not restore the traditional family trip to the pantomime with a special high-tea or supper depending on the age of the guests?

2–4 February Setsubun Mantoro
At this twice-yearly festival in Nara, the shrine’s thousands of stone lanterns as well as its famous bronze hanging lanterns are all lit to magical effect; there are believed to be over 3,000 of them in the shrine precincts, many of them evocatively covered in moss. They are lit twice a year during the nights of the Mantoro festivals in (Setsubun) February and (Obon) August. Setsubun is the day before the beginning of spring in Japan, and literally means ‘seasonal division’, but usually the term refers to the spring Setsubun, properly called Risshun celebrated yearly on 3 February as part of the Spring Festival, Haru Matsuri.

In its association with the Lunar New Year, spring Setsubun can be and was previously thought of as a sort of New Year’s Eve celebration, and was accompanied by a special ritual to cleanse away all the evil of the former year and drive away disease-bringing evil spirits for the year to come. This special ritual is called mamemaki – literally ‘bean scattering’). The head of the household (traditionally the father) would take roasted beans in his hand, pray at the family shrine, and then toss the sanctified beans out the door, while the family say: ‘Demons out! Luck in!’ and slam the door. Beans are also used to deflect ill-luck of negative energies throughout Europe and this celebration coincides with the traditional Western Candlemas and Imbolc observations.

9 February O-tauesai

This rice-planting festival is a Japanese celebration of fertility. After the rice-planting ceremony, a ritual dance simulates a couple having sexual intercourse. Masked goblins also hand out ritual smacks with bamboo sticks to ‘drive the devil out’. Familiarise yourself with the spring planting traditions and customs from the county/country in which you live and inaugurate your own ‘fruitful new beginnings’ ritual.

12 February Hatsu Uma Festival
People pray for success in business to Inari (guardian of grains, especially rice and therefore business in general). Today, there is no need for a plentiful harvest since most people buy their food from the supermarket or via online shopping – but imagine what would happen if the global commercial growers suffered consecutive bad harvests. There would be a horror scenario of global proportions that would be a magnified problem of what our ancestors faced every single year of their lives! Offer a handful of rice to Inari.

19 February Hachinohe Enburi

This localised Japanese folk dance festival dates back to when people with no experience of farming were taught how to work in the fields through dancing. This is a good opportunity for a child’s introduction to growing things.

March

On 3 March the people greet the momo-no-sekku (The Peach-blossom Festival), when their hearts swell with a feeling that it is really spring. The momo-no-sekku is also known as hinamaturi (The Doll Festival), and is a festival for young girls. What must never be lacking in this festival is one or two sprays of momo (Prunus persica: peach) inserted in a vase. This also is a custom dating from ancient times, and has become one of the regular observances of the month of March. The festival is held in order to bestow blessings upon young girls, and the peach, in this connection, is said to have the power of driving away devils (Floral Calendar of Japan).

These spring festivals are performed for the benefit of the family and can be seen as a personal welcome to the new growing year. From around the first of February on the island of Okinawa and the end of March to early May, cherry trees bloom all over Japan.

1–14 March Todai-ji Shunie
Festival of water and fire. Priests conduct a fire ceremony every evening, swinging long torches in the air to ward off evil, while water is drawn from the 1200 year-old well and offered to visitors. Light outdoor lanterns to welcome the beginning of spring.

3 March Nagashi-bina.

An event that involves dispelling impurities and misfortunes by floating dolls away on water. In this rite, dry straw is woven into a boat, which carries a pair of male and female dolls to be cast adrift in the river. Girls float a pair of husband and wife dolls on the lid of a rice container together with some sweets to keep away misfortune and pray for good health. Nagashibina literally means ‘doll floating’ and refers to the ancient ritual, imported from Chinese Taoist and Yin-Yang theory (onmyodo in Japanese) which are at the heart of much of Japan’s ancient Shinto practices. In the ritual, these small dolls made of straw were floated down a river and out to sea, and each doll carried the ‘pollution’ or ‘sin’ of the person each doll represented; not too dissimilar to the Jewish custom of scapegoating adopted in European cultures. Purity, and its antithesis – pollution in a spiritual sense – is at the heart of many Shinto rituals, and throwing things into a river to be carried away to the sea is a fairly common concept.

3 March Hina Matsuri

Girls’ Day – also known as the Doll’s Festival – is to pray for the health and happiness of young girls and marked by families displaying a set of traditional hina dolls (often family heirlooms) in the house and serving special food delicacies that are ceremonially beautiful and delicious. Traditionally, girls in Japan invited their friends to a home party to celebrate this festival – which is an idea that can be adopted in the West.

6 March Otaue-sai
A ceremonial rice planting festival to mark the beginning of spring and traditionally features time-honoured kagura dances and bugaku court music. Sow the first seeds of spring.

April

It is the sakura (cherry) that is the queen of flowers in April, and it is so representative of all flowers in Japan:


The cherries of Yosino have blossomed –
The flowers of spring that are like the supreme ruler
How right we think it is that the cherry should be the favourite flower of the Japanese, for its splendour when it blooms and for its gallantry when it falls (Floral Calendar of Japan).

Again the festivals are focusing on the well-being and harmony of the home and family

1–30 April. Miyako Odori

This is one of the four great spring shows in the five geisha districts (hanamachi) of Kyoto, Japan. The dances, songs, and theatre productions presented in the framework of the Miyako Odori are performed by the maiko and geiko of the Gion quarter. The motifs draw from classical Japanese culture and incorporate everyday life as well as folkloristic elements. A good time to support a local theatre production or concert for a family night out.

First Sunday in April Obasama Festival

A spring planting festival that was performed in the hope of a good harvest ahead of the spring farming period. Plant the first of the year’s bedding plants or vegetables.

May

When the trees gradually begin to put on their summer attire, the leaves of the different trees first appear as a fresh, vivid green; then little by little they acquire a beautiful glossiness, just as if they had been brought back to life again. The weather tells us that summer has already come, but the calendar calls this month bansyun (‘late spring’). In Japanese poetical language the flowers of this month are known as yokwai (‘the left-behind flowers’), and in fact tutuzi (azaleas), huzi (wistarias), botan (peonies), kiri (paulownias), and honoki and taizanboku (different kinds of magnolias) flower one after the other as if they were trying to make up for being late (Floral Calendar of Japan).

The beginning of May is also a time for all manner of localised festivals and celebrations including puppet plays, parades and processions, storytelling and a range of other classical arts and festival amusements – all in keeping with the Western traditions surrounding May Day.

1–3 May Yotaka Matsuri

At the pre-festival, ando (large, magnificent paper lantern sculptures) light up the night. Believed to have started in the Taisho Period c.1652 to welcome the shrine’s kami and to ask for a bountiful harvest, decorative lanterns can be lit to accompany a request for prosperity.

5 May Tango no Sekku

This Boys’ Festival has been celebrated for over a millennium and was originally celebrated in the houses of warriors because it honoured boys’ courage and determination. Many of the symbols of this day are about having the character of a warrior and eventually this day became important to all households in Japan with boys. After WWII, Boys’ Day was toned down and the holiday officially became known as Children’s Day or Kodomo no hi. It was supposed to be a day to celebrate the health and happiness of all children but many still see it as Boys’ Festival. For those with children it can be celebrated as you choose – see 3 March.

8 May Yoshida Jinja

Offerprayers to the kami of cooking, eating and drinking. So celebrate with a home-cooked meal for friends and family.

Full Moon in May Uesaku Festival

Offer prayers to the kami for world peace with fires lit in the temple grounds.

June

Now, according to the calendar also, summer has really come. The earth is wholly covered with green, and all nature has put on its summer livery. It is in this month that, the grain harvest being over, water is run into the rice-fields, and the rice seedlings are planted. From about the middle of the month to about the middle of July warm, moist south-east winds blow from the Continent, and practically the whole of Japan is enveloped in the so-called tuyu or rainy season, during which we have spells of muggy, oppressive weather. The flower for this month is indubitably the hanasyobu (Iris ensata, var. hortensis: iris). This is a plant which is said to have originally grown wild in a small marsh in the mountains of north-eastern Japan, and that it was brought to Edo (the present Tokyo) some three hundred years ago and cultivated there. It is a perennial herbaceous plant belonging to the family of Iridaceae. Mention must be made of the syobuta (iris field) in the precincts of the Meizi Shrine, since it is the place where the hanasyobu is found in its greatest perfection (Floral Calendar of Japan).

June is the time for the major rice-planting festivals that date back more than 1700 years when women ritually plant rice seedlings in the paddy fields to the accompaniment of traditional music and rice-planting folk songs. This event was symbolically used at the end of the famous Akira Kurosawa film, Seven Samurai, with great effect.

Early-Mid June Chagu-Chagu Umakko (Horse Festival)
The Morioka region of northern Japan is famous for its horses and this festival was originally conceived by horse breeders who wished to pray for long and happy lives for their animals. It now features a parade of colourfully dressed horses ridden by local children with round 80–100 horses usually taking part dressed in konida costumes (worn by the horses of daimyo – feudal lords – in the Edo Period). The name of the festival comes from the noise made by the bells (chagu chagu) on the horses’ harnesses (umakko) and the event is designated as a national intangible folklore cultural asset. At the end of the parade, prayers are offered for a bountiful rice harvest and thanks are given to the horses.

July

Early on July mornings to stand by the edge of a pond and watch the lotus flowers open is an unforgettable summer experience. The hasn (Nelumbo nucifera: lotus) was originally a native of tropical Asia, but it has been cultivated in Japan from ancient times, and is seen growing in abundance in ponds in the gardens of temples and private residences (Floral Calendar of Japan).

July is the month for celebrating numerous fire festivals and folk traditions

6–8 July Iriya no Asagao-ichi
Iriya (morning glories) flowers are said to symbolise the beginning of summer and bring good luck. Every year, thousands come to the Kishibojin Temple area to buy morning glory plants from hundreds of street stalls. Plant the flower in the garden or large pots to act as your own annual symbol of summer.

August

The favourite flower for this month has been from ancient times the asagao (Pharbitis Nil: morning glory). Though the garden be, as they say in Japanese, ‘as narrow as a cat’s forehead’, if only the homeowner sets up this pot of morning glory in it and it blooms, they can appreciate the beauty of summer. The morning glory’s original home is in tropical regions, but in China there are records of its use as a medicinal plant 2,200 years ago, and it was introduced into Japan about a thousand years ago. As the morning glory has long been loved by the Japanese, it appears in many paintings and poems (uta and haiku) but because of its homeliness and its close association with the life of the common people, it does not often occur as the main theme, but is usually added as one of the natural features of the season (Floral Calendar of Japan).

The observances for this month are focused upon the ancestors and Otherworld activities similar to Hallowe’en in the West.

13–16 August Obon Mantoro

Obon (or Bon) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honour the spirits of the ancestors. This Buddhist-Confucian custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves, and when the spirits of the ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori. Kyū Bon (Old Bon) is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and so differs each year. 

Among the traditional preparations for the ancestors’ return is the cleaning of grave sites. The welcoming fire (mukaebi) built on the thirteenth and the send-off fire (okuribi) built on the fifteenth and sixteenth are intended to light the path. Families sent their ancestor’s spirits back to their permanent dwelling place under the guidance of fire: this latter rite was known as ‘sending fire’ and the closing of the festival. One traditional custom to mark the end of the Bon Festival is the lighting of small paper lanterns containing a burning flame that are either set afloat on a river, lake or sea, or let go and float away into the night. Their light is intended to guide the way for deceased family members’ spirits to return to Otherworld.

Toro Nagashi is a symbol of summer with the soothing beauty of paper lanterns floating along the tranquil Sumida-gawa River and as Obon occurs in the heat of the summer, participants traditionally wear yukata , or lightweight cotton kimonos. This activity is traditionally performed on the final evening of the Bon and is a hauntingly beautiful sight; the peaceful custom is a gesture of respect for those who have passed away and gives participants a moment to think about their ancestors, loved ones or even past pets. The three-day Buddhist Obon festival is held in honour of one’s ancestors; Toro Nagashi is meant to be more of a joyful celebration than a time of mourning.

September

Gathering the flowers blooming in the autumn fields —
When we count them
their kinds are seven.

This is a poem written a thousand years ago, and from ancient times seven flowers, known as aki no nanakusa or ‘the seven herbs of autumn’, have been taken as the representatives of all autumn flowers, and have been much used as subjects of poetry and painting. All are plain, homely flowers, without the least trace of gaudiness. They are: hagi (Lespedeza spp: bush clover); susuki (Miscanthus sinensis: pampas grass); kuzu (Pueraria Thunbergiana, var typica: arrowroot); nadesiko (Dianthus superbus: pink); ominaesi (Patrinia scabiosaefolia: golden lace flower); huzibakama (Eupatorium japonicum: aster), and kikyo (Platycodon glaucum: bell flower) (Floral Calendar of Japan).

At this time of the year, graveyards in Japan will be densely covered in bizarrely shaped crimson flowers brightly glistening in the autumn sun. That’s the higanbana – red spider lily (Lycoris radiate) and the best way to enjoy their dark beauty is on a sunny, autumn day’s stroll through the rice paddies at O-higan, where the deep red flowers growing alongside the bright yellow rice fields ready for harvest make for a colourful contrast. R9ice farmers don’t put them there solely for aesthetic reasons, though. As with any amaryllis, their bulbs are poisonous and they are supposed to keep moles, mice and other hole-digging vermin that might damage the crops, at bay.

O-higan

This the day of the Autumn Equinox and it’s a national holiday in Japan because from this day on (23 September to be correct), the dark of night will become longer than the day-light period and it’s time to get serious about the ghosts that haunt the long winter nights. Traditionally it is a time to take care of the unruly, potentially vengeful souls of the ancestors since higan translates as the ‘other shore’ – the land of the dead. Thus o-higan is the day to visit the family graves and to pray for the well-being of the departed souls; where old countryside graveyards will be densely covered with these bizarrely shaped crimson flowers  like violently shed blood rising straight out of the ground. Why not plant three or four bulbs in a large plot so that they bloom in time for the Autumn Equinox.

October

October is a month for fruits rather than for flowers. Apples, grapes, figs, kaki (persimmons), and chestnuts are the most important (Floral Calendar of Japan).

The Autumn Harvest Festivals are celebrated around the time of the rice harvest to thank the gods for a bountiful crop. There is no exact date, since it is varied and is only celebrated in the month of October.

Momijigari

Just as the sakura or cherry blossom represents spring, the momiji or autumn leaves, have traditionally represented autumn in Japan, and the pleasurable pastime of viewing autumn colours is called momiji-gari, which literally means ‘hunting the autumn leaves’. Japanese people enjoy momiji-gari, which is regarded as a seasonal event equally as important as hanami, or flower viewing, and both practices are deeply rooted in their lives. Originally the practice of viewing autumn colours is thought to have started off as an elegant pastime mainly enjoyed by the court and aristocracy in the seventh century. That changed, however, around the seventeenth century during the Edo period, when the custom spread to commoners and people began to hold sake parties and sumptuous feasts while viewing the beautiful autumn landscapes.

In general, the use of the term momiji is applied to all deciduous trees that produce autumnal leaves toned with a red or yellow, including maple, the Japanese lacquer tree, and the ginkgo. The term has also come to be used to represent the maple, the actual name for which is Kaede, because of the particular beauty of the leaves. There are many Japanese tanka and haiku poems about the autumn leaves and the joys of viewing them. The momiji tradition has also found expression in the noh and kabuki theatrical forms; kimono and obi sashes have also incorporated special traditional autumn motifs.

Like the cherry blossom, the momiji reaches its peak in a rather short time and then fades and drops off the tree. It represents delicate short-lived beauty that Japanese people are traditionally fond of, like a samurai, who has lived a short but honourable life. Autumn leaves peak and then fall, followed by the first snows of winter, completing the natural life cycle that Japanese have experienced for centuries. Make a habit of viewing this ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ wherever you can find it – and take the time to stand and stare.

November

The mountains become gay for a while with red and yellow hues; of flowers there is only the chrysanthemum to give colour to autumn as it dies. But the red foliage (momizi) of the trees and the chrysanthemums are able by themselves to make both the country and the garden as beautiful as did all the hundred flowers of spring. Places noted for their momizi or chrysanthemums are crowded with people, for November offers the last chance for outings in the year. Just as the cherry is considered to be the queen of flowers in spring, so the chrysanthemum is to be regarded as the queen of flowers in autumn. The crest of the Japanese Imperial Family is a chrysanthemum flower and as such is revered by the whole nation (Floral Calendar of Japan).

The beginning of November is the time for historical costume street parades, with festivals of dance and music to give thanks for the harvest, and a time to pray for family prosperity. It is also a time for a sacred fire ritual to banish evil spirits and anticipating the coming of winter with kagura dances, thundering taiko drums and bonfires celebrating the time when the gods landed on the earth.

December

We have finally reached the last month of the year, which, according to the Japanese calendar, is the first month of winter. Tya-no-hana (tea blossoms) and sazanka (Camellia sasanqua) are about the only flowers of this month. Tya-no-hana is the blossom of the famous Japanese green tea, and is white and very lovely; the blossoms have five petals and long yellow stamens. The leaves are gathered in May. The sazanka bears a resemblance to the camellia (tubaki), but it is quieter in appearance. The flowers are pale pink or white. It is cultivated in gardens, and is used for making hedges; in the south of Japan it is found growing wild (Floral Calendar of Japan).

13 December Preparation for the New YearPreparations for seeing in the New Year were originally undertaken to greet the toshigami, or deity of the incoming year. These began on 13 December, when the house was given a thorough cleaning; the date is usually nearer the end of the month now. The house is then decorated in the traditional fashion: a sacred rope of straw (shimenawa) with dangling white paper strips (shide) is hung over the front door to prevent evil spirits from entering and to show the presence of the toshigami. It is also customary to place kadomatsu, an arrangement of tree sprigs, beside the entrance way. This is in preparation for the New Year holidays. Decorations and sundry goods are sold at the local fair. Originally these year-end fairs provided opportunities for farmers, fisher-folk and mountain dwellers to exchange goods and buy clothes and other necessities for the coming year.

All cultures have their heroes and there are usually calendar days set aside to honour them, which are an important part of remembering our history and cultural heritage. For example:

14 December: The revenge of the forty-seven rōnin  Also known as the Akō incident – is an eighteenth-century historical event in Japan in which a band of ronin (leaderless samurai) avenged the death of their master. The story tells of a group of samurai who were left leaderless after their daimyo (feudal lord) Asano Naganori was compelled to perform seppuku (ritual suicide) for assaulting a court official named Kira Yoshinaka. After waiting and planning for a year, the rōnin avenged their master’s honour by killing Kira. In turn, they were themselves obliged to commit seppuku for committing the crime of murder. This true story was popularized in Japanese culture as emblematic of the loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honour that people should preserve in their daily lives. Each year in December, Sengakuji Temple, where Asano Naganori and the rōnin are buried, holds a festival commemorating the legendary event. There is a classic Kenji Mizoguchi film version of the story entitled The 47 Ronin.

 

31 December Ōmisoka

People do the general house cleaning (Ōsōji) to welcome the coming year and not to keep having impure influences. Many people visit Buddhist temples to hear the temple bells rung 108 times at midnight (joya no kane) to announce the passing of the old year and the coming of the new. The reason they are rung 108 times is because of the Buddhist belief that human beings are plagued by 108 earthly desires or passions (bonnō) and with each ring, one desire is dispelled. It is also a custom to eat toshikoshi-soba in the hope that the family fortunes will extend like the long noodles.

It should be obvious from the small selection of festivals mentioned above that the Japanese do – and always have – placed great emphasis on showing reverence for their ancestors and cultural heritage, while some tend to be more devoted to family participation. Even if we are not taking part in any religious tradition, we still need to observe certain personal devotions in order to make a statement of who we are – even if it’s only for ourselves.

When things flourish they begin to decline

At midday the sun starts to set

When the moon is done waxing

It starts to wane.

The Kensho Moment: Exercise

At the turning points of the year in spring and autumn, if we focus our attention on the wonders of Nature, we are also synchronising with the various folk-traditions for both East and West. These are the times when the changing natural tides influence spiritual and mystical matters all over the world.

Vernal Equinox (Shunbun no Hi) is a public holiday in Japan, usually 20–21 March, although the date of the holiday is not officially declared until February of the previous year, due to the need for astronomical measurements. Vernal Equinox Day became a public holiday in 1948 and prior to that it was the spring date of Shunki koreisai dedicated to the imperial ancestors and to the kami collectively. Like other Japanese holidays, this holiday was repackaged as a non-religious holiday for the sake of separation of religion and state in Japan’s post-war constitution.

  • This is the time for observation and silent contemplation in a natural landscape; ideally while ‘flower viewing’.

Yet Summer Solstice, or Geshi as it’s called in Japan, passes relatively unnoticed except for the ritual bathing in the sea to purify body and soul as the sun comes up between a pair of sacred rocks known as Meotoiwa. This ritual Geshisai takes place at daybreak every year at Ise – famous for being the home of Ise Jingu, the most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan representing as they do, the union of Izanagi and Izanami, the two Shinto gods responsible for the creation of the Islands of Japan. The sunrise is seen just at the midpoint of the two rocks for one week before and after the solstice; only during these weeks, the sun appears to come up from behind Mt. Fuji in the far distance, if the weather permits – but the chances of seeing beautiful sunrises there are not high because it is in the middle of the rainy season! This small shrine with one of its torii gates standing offshore is a popular tourist attraction. Meotoiwa is actually the shrine gate for the divine stone Okitama Shinseki located underwater about 700 metres offshore, which is said to be a holy rock, of the god of entertainment, Sarutahiko no Ookami.

  • Make a point of getting up early to watch the sunrise – even if it’s only from the bedroom window with a cup of tea – and bathe in the morning glow.

On 22, 23 or 24 September the Autumnal Equinox is celebrated as a national holiday in Japan and known as Shubun-no-hi. The exact day can vary due to astronomical observations, so the date for the following year is usually announced in early spring. This was originally known as the Autumn Commemoration for the Imperial Spirits (Shuki koreisai).

  • Legend has it that the scent of the red spider lily (higanbana) will bring back all the beautiful memories of the dead for one last time, before they disappear when they cross the Forgotten River. And their blooming represents the changing from summer to autumn. The transient beauty of the flower recalls those who have departed from this life but live on in our memory.

Even the Winter Solstice, Tōji, does not go unmarked in Japan, even if it is small-scale – the most well-known activity is taking a bath with a type of citrus called yuzu in the water. Although the power of the sun is weakest at this time of the year, it becomes stronger from this day and it is said that the fortune of people rise from this day.

  • Find a peaceful place to watch the sunset on this shortest of days and wait quietly for owl-light to descend to create that ‘time between times’ so familiar to those pagans in the West.

Be empty, be still

Watch everything

Just come and go.

Pagan Portals Western Animism: Zen & the Art of Positive Paganism by Melusine Draco is published by Moon Books  ISBN 978 1 78904 123 1 : 80 pages : UK£6.99/US$10.95 : Available in paperback and e-book format.

New release …

Talking to Crows by Melusine Draco

ARCANUM series – Book 2 – Ignotus Press UK

‘Talking to crows’ is said of those who have some presentiment or foresight in Sicilian folk-lore. It is believed that to those who can understand them, these black birds, garrulous creatures they are, communicate the latest news on the doings of human beings, since they have a clear view – a bird’s eye view – of the whole. They have also been around for a lot longer than human beings and, perhaps not surprisingly, long ago developed the reputation of being messengers of the gods in many different cultures across the world.

Members of this large, adaptable family live in habitats ranging from treeless tundras where land is flat to mountain forests. They live in deciduous forests, where trees shed their leaves, and coniferous forests, with cone-bearing evergreen trees. Corvids range in deserts, grassland steppes where there are few trees, and on the edge of rainforests, where heavy rain produces much growth. In addition, they live in cities and small villages. They are always our close companions and who more able to communicate news from Otherworld, should we choose to listen?

Talking to Crows by Mélusine Draco is the second title published in the ‘Arcanum series’ for Ignotus Books.  Arcanum books will be titles of under 100-pages of practical and/or instructional text on a specific esoteric subject or theme and written by magical practitioners with proven antecedents. Based on the idea of those children’s ‘Ladybird’ books that often introduced us to an interest that lasted a life time and, taking its name from the Coven of the Scales’ foundation course, the aim is to offer further tuition/guidance on specific elements of witch-lore and practice.

Coming in at under 25,000 words, each title will be packed with information and instruction rather than puffed out with superfluous wordage and regurgitated text borrowed from other publications.  The series will be aimed at those who have attained a certain level of magical competence and who don’t need to be spoon-fed basic instructions for Circle-casting with each volume – and are therefore not written with beginners in mind.

Now in production, Talking to Crows will be available direct from the printer at a special price from the last week in June.  Watch this space …

A Beltaine Blessing …

by Phillip Wright

The main source of reference for Old English month names comes from the Venerable Bede who recorded the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon month names in his Latin work known as De mensibus Anglorum, written in 725AD. This is the only testimony of an Old High German lunar-solar system, with a balancing month being inserted around Midsummer; while Charlemagne recorded agricultural Old High German names for the Julian months. These remained in use, with regional variants and innovations, until the end of the medieval period in German-speaking Europe and persisted in popular or dialectal use into the 19th century. 

The Celtic names now in popular use for the Wheel of the Year were only adopted in the 1970s by the neo-Wiccan movement who objected to the traditional Craft use of Church festival names: Candlemas, Roodmas, Lammas, Hallowmas, etc.. But since these festivals were originally pagan and absorbed into early Christian doctrine it meant that people could be open about their faith and use the names in common conversation – thus they passed back into traditional witchcraft and remain another direct link with the Ancestors through continued usage within traditional British Old Craft.

Likewise, in Ireland today they openly refer to Beltaine and Samhain as the time of the year in Gaelic and not with any Craft connotations because the Celtic year was simply divided into a bright half and a dark half. As the day was seen as beginning at sunrise, so the year was seen as beginning with the arrival of the bright half of the year starting at Calan Haf/Beltaine  (1st May, in the modern calendar) when cattle were taken out to the summer pastures. The observance of festivals beginning the evening before the festival day is still seen in the celebrations and folkloric practices among pagans, such as the traditions of Beltaine Eve, Midsummer Eve, Lammas Eve, etc.

Since ancient methods of recording time passing were based on the agrarian calendars, it stands to reason that most of our traditional festivals are geared towards the farming cycle since witchcraft dates to well before the Industrial Revolution when there were mass migrations from the countryside.  This means thinking outside the box for modern witches when we talk about ‘seed-time and harvest’ since many urban pagans are unable to relate to these everyday country matters.  Nevertheless, as this is the time for new beginnings we can think in terms of our ‘seed time’ as being a metaphorical approach to new ideas, renewed ambitions, and fresh approaches in our career or domestic affairs but the old calendar gives us yet another direct link to the Ancestors.

May Day celebrations have always been an excuse for enjoyment and pleasure and the Compass working should reflect light-heartedness and thanksgiving.  Although Roodmas in the Church calendar is a rather sombre affair commemorating the discovery of the ‘true cross’, we suspect it had something to do with replacing the may-pole as the symbol central to the day’s celebrations;

no doubt in order to temper the natural pagan exuberance for the festival.  As we are working in conjunction with the Julian calendar we can use a 17th century poem and conduct a magical cleansing and protection rite for our home. Robert Herrick’s The Old Wives Prayer gives an example of the beliefs and language of the time – and can still be used as a protection spell today:

Holy-Rood, come forth and shield

Us i’ the’ city and the field;

Safely guard us now and aye,

From a blast that burns by day,

And those sounds that us affright

In the dead of dampish night;

Drive all hurtful fiends us fro,

By the time the cocks first crow.

The community pagan symbol for May Day was, of course, the may-pole, which was found primarily in England, and in areas of the Scottish Lowlands and Wales that came under English influence. The earliest recorded evidence comes from a Welsh poem written by Gryffydd ap Adda ap Dafydd in the mid-14th century, in which he described how people used a tall birch pole at Llanidloes in central Wales; while literary evidence for maypole customs increase in later decades, and ‘by the period 1350-1400 the custom was well established across southern Britain, in town and country and in both Welsh-speaking and English-speaking areas’, according to The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain.  Few of us, we suspect, would be able to obtain a thirty-foot birch tree for the occasion!

In some regions, however, a different maypole tradition existed: the carrying of highly decorated sticks with hoops or cross-sticks, or swags attached, covered with flowers, greenery or artificial materials such as crêpe paper.  This tradition is known as garlanding, and was a central feature of May Day celebrations in central and southern England until the mid-19th century and is a more practical adaptation that we can use within our Craft celebrations as a lead-up to Old Beltaine.  It can even be hung on the front door where the Yule wreath will later mark the Mid-Winter festival.

Even more traditionally, the Beltaine festival actually fell about halfway between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice and historically marked the beginning of summer when cattle were moved to summer pastures.  Rituals were performed to protect the livestock, crops and people, and to encourage growth; special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were all deemed to have protective powers. The people and their animals would walk around the bonfire or between two bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltaine bonfire. These gatherings would be accompanied by a feast with some of the food and drink being offered to the Ancestors and the deity of the harvest.

With climate change now affecting the seasons, there can be a problem in celebrating Beltaine if the May blossom isn’t in bloom.  Why? Walk past a hedgerow when its coming into bloom and we breathe the spicy, almond-like scent of the flowers which has been prized for centuries by perfumers because hawthorn blossom exudes a heavy musky fragrance with sexual undertones … so it’s not surprising that rural mothers wouldn’t let it in the house … something rarely acknowledged in folklore, but implicit in much of the popular culture of the hawthorn and its associations with witchcraft. This is why in Craft-lore it is deemed important that the festival coincides with the early flowering when the blossoms give out that strangely disturbing but unmistakable perfume.

Leave it until the flowers are fully open, however, and they begin to give off another unsettling smell – one of death.  Once the hawthorn has become covered with beautiful spring blossoms these can have a most unpleasant odour. With a smell described as that of decomposing flesh, even the bees are reluctant to pollinate the flowers; when animal flesh begins to decompose it forms trimethylamine, a colourless gas with a strong, fishy, ammonia-like odour. Research has found that the hawthorn flowers produce this same chemical. Travelling on air currents to reach pollinators near and far, this odour assures the pollination of the flowers, the setting of fruit and seed production, creating the next generation of hawthorn.

Or as I often say: ‘If the hawthorn’s not in bloom it ain’t Beltaine!’

The Old Lad – a Nameless God

In traditional British Old Craft we echo the thought of the quintessential Japanese swordsman, Mushasi Miyamoto: ‘Respect the gods and buddhas, but never rely on them’.

  • But, who, or what, are the gods of Old Craft witches?

The image we see in our mind’s eye is probably influenced by what we consider to be the epitome of male beauty drawn from the mythology of the different paths and traditions.  And, while the gods had their positive traits, they were no models of perfection because deities of the Old World had a darker side that has become forgotten with antiquity.  In contemporary witchcraft, the god is traditionally seen as the ‘Horned God’ – an archetypal deity with links to the Celtic Cernunnos, English folkloric Herne the Hunter, and the Greek god, Pan.

Arguably the most visually impressive and rather portentous of ancient Celtic gods, Cernunnos is actually the general name given to horned deities and, given the ambiguous scope of the ‘Horned God’ in Celtic mythology, there are no recorded myths and ancient literary sources that directly pertain to the figure of Cernunnos. As such, the term is found only once in the historical context – mentioned on a Roman column dating from circa 1st century AD. There are representations of the Celtic Horned God that predate the Roman Cernunnos, the most well-known depiction of the deity being found on the Gundestrup Cauldron (circa 1st century BC), discovered from Jutland.  Most of these figures and inscriptions represent a human or a half-human with antler crowns, and such historical portrayals, in turn, influenced the modern representations of Cernunnos as the forest deity with his set of elaborate antlers.

The popular imagery of Cernunnos as the Otherworldly horned figure residing within the depths of the forest is arguably inspired by Margaret Murray’s 1931 book, The God of the Witches. Murray, who was a historian, anthropologist and folklorist  – famous for her Witch-Cult theory – surmised that Herne the Hunter, a folk-hero from around the Berkshire region, was a localized aspect of Cernunnos.  He was a phantom hunter who haunts Windsor Great Park, impersonated by Falstaff in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, and though Herne may have been an actual keeper of the forest, he probably became a local manifestation of the Wild Huntsman myth known throughout the world.

If we claim to follow the ancient gods then we must accept them as they were – warts and all – we cannot re-write the script because it offends 21st century sensibilities.  The Old Lad is a roaring, pouncing kind of an individual for whom the notion of sacrifice represented a higher aspect of communion between men and gods; although down through the ages it became more allied to morality until the Roman State-cult introduced the pax deorum – the relation of kindliness between gods and men.  Nevertheless, although an inappropriate sacrifice could give serious religious offence, so strong was the idea of this ancient belief that newly emerging Christianity took the dying god/sacrificial king image to the very heart of their religion! This darker element of the Old Lad was easily identified through ignorance (or deliberate political propaganda) with the biblical satan/devil and indeed the Old Lad might have appeared rather ‘devilish’ to a clergy hell-bent on eradicating pagan beliefs; whilst at the same time incorporating the more powerful imagery of the ancient world’s sacrificial god into their own rites, where we still find that kindred calls to kindred, blood calls to blood.

In these newly migrating religions and mythologies, anthropomorphism became the perception of a divine being in human form, or the recognition of human qualities in these entities.  In fact, ancient mythologies frequently represented the divine as deities with human forms and qualities. They resembled humans not only in appearance and personality; they exhibited many human behaviors that were used to explain natural phenomena, creation, and historical events. The deities fell in love, married, had children, fought battles, wielded weapons, and rode horses and chariots. They feasted on special foods, and sometimes required sacrifices of food, beverage, and sacred objects to be made as offerings.  Some anthropomorphic deities represented specific human concepts, such as love, war, fertility, beauty, or the seasons; exhibiting human qualities such as beauty, wisdom, and power, and sometimes human weaknesses such as greed, hatred, jealousy, and uncontrollable anger. Greek deities such as Zeus and Apollo often were depicted in human form exhibiting both commendable and despicable human traits.

With all these multi-faceted perceptions of god-head perhaps we should look at the witches’ god as an embodiment of the physical perfection of Apollo Belvedere, superimposed with a DeviantArt image of Pan in all his primordial splendour.  That is, all the grandeur of the Olympian, tempered by the primitive energies of Nature … because Apollo was the Greek god of prophecy and oracles, music, song and healing and with whom Charles Leyland identified his Luciferian-type of character in his 1889 publication of Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches. 

‘The individual man makes God after his individual imagination.  We each worship a God of our own.  The warrior-like nature of the Scandinavian gods reflects the characteristics of their worshippers.  In fact it may be said that the development of the religious germ depends, to a great extent, on the nature of the people, on the natural features and geology of the country more than on political surroundings and social habits … Thus, the study of the mythological creed of the inhabitants of any land offers a wide and tempting subject to the inquirer … Yet numerous singular customs exist which must have originated from a religious idea.  The religious aspect of the rites has been gradually obscured, and in some cases finally lost, but the customs have been carried on, almost in stereotyped form, from the days in which they were practiced by the native people.  If these customs be compared with those described in the passages illustrative of rites and observations in ancient Irish MSS, there will probably be discovered for us the entire secret of the religious system of our heathen ancestors.’ [Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland]

The popular image of the Greek god Pan was removed from its classical context in the writings of the Romantics of the 18th century and connected with their ideals of a pastoral England. This, along with the general public’s increasing lack of familiarity of Greek mythology at the time led to the figure of Pan becoming generalised as a ‘Horned God’, and applying connotations to the character, such as benevolence that were not evident in the original Greek myth, which in turn gave rise to the popular acceptance of Murray’s hypothetical Horned God of the Witches.

The duality of the Horned God, however, was firmly entrenched in our folklore and every year at the Winter and Summer Solstices, these two fought for dominance. In actuality, they were two parts of the same thing: the waxing and waning of the yearly cycles of the Earth. The Holly King rules the waning year, from Midsummer to Yule, and the Oak King rules the waxing year from Yule to Midsummer. The Holly King represents darkness, decay and destruction -but also represents inner knowledge and Mysteries. The Oak King, on the other hand, represents light, growth and expansion. These two mighty kings fight a symbolic battle to win the Crown of the year – at Yule when the Oak King wins, and at Midsummer when the Holly King wins.

In some of the legends, the dates of these events are shifted and the battle takes place at the Equinoxes, so that the Oak King is at his strongest during Midsummer, and the Holly King is dominant during Yule. From a folkloric and agricultural standpoint, this interpretation seems to make more sense.  In some traditions, the Oak King and the Holly King are seen as dual aspects of the Horned God with each of these twin aspects ruling for half the year; battling for the favour of the Goddess, and then retiring to nurse his wounds for the next six months, until it is time for him to reign once more.

Both Robert Graves and Sir James George Frazer wrote about this battle. Graves said in his work The White Goddess that the conflict between the Oak and Holly Kings echoes that of a For instance, the fights between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and between Lugh and Balor in Celtic legend, are similar in type, in which one figure must die for the other to triumph.  Frazer wrote, in The Golden Bough,  of the killing of the King of the Wood, or the tree spirit. He went on to say that as long as the King could maintain his position, it might be inferred that he was in power; the eventual defeat indicated that his strength was beginning to fail, and it was time for someone newer, younger, and more vigorous to take over. Ultimately, while these two beings do battle all year long, they are two essential parts of a whole. Despite being rivals, without one, the other would no longer exist. 

In truth, the dark tide first begins to stir at Lammas, the time of fruition and harvest when the crops are gathered and fruits begin to ripen. Under the new style calendar, Lammas would be celebrated on 1st August; in the Elder Faith where we still follow the old calendar, we would perform the Lammas Rite on 12th August. When we’re heading towards the Autumnal Equinox, when the two tides of summer/winter, bright/dark, god/goddess stand equally opposed so – the bright tide will start to wane, the dark aspect ever increasing – and traditionally Lammas was essentially a male-oriented ritual. Within the Coven the goddess-imagery now fades into the back ground until the fires of Candlemas and the Vernal Equinox call her forth once again; with a shared celebration of fresh bread and wine/beer she takes her leave and future Coven rites reflect the god’s growing power in the form of the Magister.

Incidentally, Brân is one of the few truly old Pretannic gods who can trace his ancestry to pre-Celtic times, and is usually referred to as the ‘Brân Blessed’ or Brân Fendigaidd in Welsh, which literally means ‘blessed crow or raven’. He was a legendary, pre-Arthurian, King of Britain and a fearless warrior; a popular figure in the bardic traditions he was well-known in Welsh mythology during the Iron Age. Legend describes him as a giant of semi-divine heritage who possessed supernatural strength and abilities since his father was Llŷr, the god of the sea; he was also brother to Brânwen, of whom he was fiercely protective – playing his most significant role in the Mabinogi: Branwen ferch Llŷr. A patron of poetry and music, Brân was hailed as the embodiment of sovereignty, eventually being venerated as a god, a folk-hero and a powerful king among the numerous tribes of Britain where he was associated with ravens as a god of prophecy.

Today we rarely encounter Brân outside traditional Welsh literature, but he deserves his place among those who follow the Old Ways as a symbol of faith and honour and possibly Britain’s greatest warrior. And yet there are elements of his story that have been preserved in traditional witchcraft – including the significance of the cauldron, the holiness of the alder and the recognition of ravens as messengers. Kindred calls to kindred, blood calls to blood. It can even be said that elements of Brân can be metamorphosed into the Old Lad if that’s how we choose to see him and celebrate his feast day at the Autumn Equinox.

Also in English folklore, John Barleycorn is a character who represents the crop of barley harvested each autumn. Equally as important, he symbolizes the wonderful drinks which can be made from barley – beer and whisky – and their effects. In the traditional folksong, the character of John Barleycorn endures all kinds of indignities, most of which correspond to the cyclic nature of planting, growing, harvesting, and then death. It has all the symbolism of the dying god/sacrificial king that is at the heart of all witchcraft and ancient pagan tradition. Versions of the folk-song date back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, but there is evidence that it was sung for many years before that and, although most of us no longer work on the land, the power of this extraordinary and ancient song remains undiminished.

The first tide of destruction and winter comes with Hallowe’en, the Feast of the Dead and the first day of the witch’s year with the dark tide of the Holly King and Lord of Misrule reaching its high point at the Mid-Winter Festival – the Winter Solstice. The first stirrings of the dark tide are felt at Lammas, the time of fruition and harvest when the crops are gathered in and fruits begin to ripen. At the Autumnal Equinox the tides are once again equally opposed with the bright tide waning and the dark increasing. At Mid-Winter the tide of darkness is at its height and so the cycle continues …

The darkening of the year is the realm of the Old Lad until Candlemas heralds the end of the Holly King’s reign, which once again explains why we Old Crafters synchronise our rituals to coincide with the Old Julian calendar that links us directly to the power of the Ancestors when kindred calls to kindred, and blood calls to blood. Here, darkness is the natural opposite of light, when our world is divided between winter and summer, but wintertime is not considered evil or bad – it is merely the world held in balance until the sun begins its return at the Mid-Winter Festival that marks the Winter Solstice with fire and rejoicing.  It is during this time we call upon the Old Lad for protection and guidance through the long, dark days of winter, and just as he watches over his consort as she sleeps, so we make the propitiatory offerings to appease him through ritual acts, attitude, or gifts. Our pre-Celtic ancestors worshiped the forces of nature and did not envisage deities in anthropomorphic forms – unlike modern paganism with its eclectic pantheons. Our gods are faceless and nameless but s/he is no less powerful for all their anonymity; votive offerings were made throughout the landscape in areas of the natural world that were held to be sacred, namely in groves of trees, rocky outcrops, river crossings, lakes and springs.

The Ancestors act as Coven guardians and also channel the god-power in a two-way conduit, for it would be too hazardous to allow a direct current to pass between supplicant and benefactor. This shield can also act as a safety-barrier for any deific displeasure we may inadvertently attract by behaving inappropriately, i.e. ignoring or disobeying the rules. It guards us from infiltration by outsiders who would join our ranks in order to acquire secret information or cause damage. And, it warns when our own are wavering and likely to fall prey to indiscretion and flattery. It also means that once we are permanently linked to this power, we don’t even have to think about it in order to tap into it. This is what it means to be an Old Craft witch

Needless to say, it may take many years of practice until this conduit becomes automatically open for us but ancient cultures understood that we live in a vast ‘sea’ of cosmic energy. They taught that everything animate and inanimate has consciousness and channels this energy, according to its individual capabilities, to help facilitate this essential universal dialogue. Ancestral communication is the highest form of spiritual channelling that comes from a strong, deep and pure connection with the Ancestors themselves and, through the Ancestors, with the Divine.

At the Mid-Winter Festival we pay homage to the Old Lad in his ‘coat of many colours’ – as protector of the Old Lass and his Consort; as Dark Lord of the Forest and God of the Witches; as the Holly King; as Lord of the Revels in the guise of his surrogate, the Lord of Misrule; as the Unconquered Sun; as psychopomp, the guide of souls to the place of the dead; and as Master of the Wild Hunt.  This multi-faceted god is an element that contemporary paganism wishes to suppress and the one that we, of Old Craft, exalt above all others.  The Old Lad is a primal god from the days when the world was young and deity was sacrificed in order that his followers should survive.

February then, is traditionally a gloomy time, but magically it’s a time when the natural tides are on the move again. Candlemas, then, is the re-awakening of the Old Lass and also coincides with the Roman Festa Candelarum, which commemorated the search for Persephone by her mother Demeter, Persephone having been kidnapped by the King of the Otherworld, Hades. From these ancient rites we can see how they identify with the Old Lass and her awakening, not to mention their association with the Mysteries of Old Craft.

In Witchcraft: A Tradition Renewed, Evan John Jones acknowledges that Candlemas is the first of the great Sabbats and the start of the ritual year, when it is time to let go of the past and to look to the future, clearing out the old, making both outer and inner space for new beginnings. But, as Melusine Draco explains in Seeking the Primal Goddess, generally speaking, Old Craft witches prefer not to associate their deities with any dubious mythology – home-grown or foreign import – instead we refer to them obliquely as the Old Ones, the Owd Lad and Owd Lass, the Lord and Lady, or just Him and Her because in truth they are the Nameless God and the Faceless Goddess. Once again, Fire is the most important aspect of this celebration because it symbolizes bringing the light of the Old Lass back to the world and the start of the Old Lad beginning to relinquish his power.

We also need to look back into the distant past for those animals most likely to have been associated with the Horned God.  For example:

Connamara Stag

It is 10,000 years since the last giant Irish Elk with its 10-foot wide antlers grazed in Ireland’s deep forests. And though the noble beast is long extinct, naturalists have long been puzzled as to how, and why, it grew such magnificent headgear. Now a strange tale from the heart of Connemara has provided experts with an intriguing clue. Red stags introduced to the west of Ireland some years ago by the owner of a large estate with an interest in wildlife have astonished experts by growing to an immense size and producing magnificent antlers.

Ten years ago, Nikolai Burkart, a German industrialist, released 16 young red deer at Screebe, his Connemara estate. His aim was to reintroduce a species that had been present for centuries in this country, until the last few were shot during the famine 150 years ago.  But Mr Burkart was surprised the deer have grown to such splendid proportions – towering over the red deer of the Scottish Highlands. Connemara’s stags are in a different league: a good Highland stag carcass weighs about 16 stone. The red deer of Connemara weigh twice that, at least.

Experts suggest a number of factors for such phenomenal growth. Firstly the animals are descended from top-class stock via Co Wicklow with their ancestors, in turn, derived from the herd in Warnham Park, in Surrey in England.  The second reason which may offer an intriguing insight into ancient times is the environment. What appears to be hostile terrain in Connemara has underlying limestone which is taken up in the vegetation. That helps build bone and antler.

A third factor is the good feeding in the unfenced conifer woodlands owned by Coillte, the state forestry organisation. Analysis of droppings, carried out by biologists from NUI Galway has shown that the deer have become predominantly browsers rather than grazers. Some 80 per cent of their food consists of bramble leaves, heather, willow shoots, and just 20 per cent is grass. Luckily, they do practically no damage to the trees.

The giant Irish Elk maintained its enormous antlers despite the privations of the last Ice Age, when it might have been expected that they would have reduced due to food scarcity. Research carried out some years ago by University College London found that these so-called ‘luxury’ organs – the antlers – remained impressively large.  Their present-day descendants in Connemara spent the first four months in an enclosure, but since then they have never been confined and are truly wild.

  • So when we look at a stag as representing the Horned God, we need to look towards the magnificent creatures of Connemara before we can say: ‘That’s a god!

Aurochs

The aurochs, which ranged throughout much of Euasia and Northern Africa during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene, is the wild ancestor of modern cattle. Historical descriptions, like Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico or 17th-century biologist, Anton Schneeberger, tell that aurochs were swift and fast, and could be very aggressive. According to these sources, aurochs were not concerned when a man approached, but when teased or hunted, an aurochs could get very aggressive and dangerous, and throw the teasing person into the air, as he described in a 1602 letter to Gesner.

The aurochs was an important game animal appearing in both Paleolithic European and Mesopotamian cave paintings, such as those found at Lascaux and Livernonat in France. When the aurochs became rarer, hunting it became a privilege of the nobility and a sign of a high social status. With the aurochs immobilized, the curly hair on the forehead was cut from the living animal. Belts were made out of this hair and were believed to increase the fertility of women. When the aurochs was slaughtered, a cross-like bone (os cardis) was extracted from the heart. This bone, which is also present in domesticated cattle, contributed to the mystique of the animal and magical powers have been attributed to it. A 1999 archaeological dig in Peterborough, England, uncovered the skull of an aurochs. The front part of the skull had been removed, but the horns remained attached. The supposition is that the killing of the aurochs in this instance was a sacrificial act.

Also during antiquity, the aurochs was regarded as an animal of cultural value. Aurochs are depicted on the Ishtar Gate, while aurochs figurines were made by the Maykop culture in Western Caucasus. In the Peloponnese there is a 15th-century BC depiction on the so-called ‘violent cup of Vaphio’, of hunters trying to capture with nets three wild bulls being probably aurochs, in a possibly Cretan date-palm stand. One of the bulls throws a hunter to the ground while attacking the second with its horns. Despite an earlier perception that the cup was Minoan, it seems to be Mycenaean Greeks and Paenians hunted aurochs (wild oxen/bulls) and used their huge horns as trophies, cups for wine, and offerings to the gods and heroes.

Starting around 2007, the Dutch-based Tauros Programme tried to DNA-sequence breeds of primitive cattle to find gene-sequences that match those found in ‘ancient DNA’ from aurochs samples. The modern cattle would be selectively bred to try to produce the aurochs-type genes in a single animal.  The breeds which are used for crossbreeding mostly stem from the Iberian Peninsular and Italy. For example, these are Sayaguesa, cattle, Pajuna cattle, Italian Podolica and Maremmana primitivo. Although claimed to be genetically close to the aurochs, the Lidia breed of Spanish fighting bull was not used for the project due to its aggressive behaviour!

  • With its reputation for untamability and uncertain temperament, surely the aurochs with its noble history is another candidate for divine association?

Sheep and goats

Certain species of sheep and goats with spiral horns like a helmet have, in antiquity, been elevated to the level of divinity.  The ‘Goat of Mendes of the Egyptians was, in fact a ram!

The chief deity of Mendes was Banebdjedet (lit. Ba of the Lord of Djedet), and described by Herodotus in his Histories as being represented with the head and fleece of a goat: ‘…whereas anyone with a sanctuary of Mendes, or who comes from the province of Mendes, will have nothing to do with [sacrificing] goats, but uses sheep as his sacrificial animals…’

Demonologists in more modern times often imagined Satan as manifesting himself as a goat or satyr, because goats had a reputation for lustful behavior and were used in the iconography of pre-Christian gods like Pan and the ‘Goat of Mendes’. The occultist Eliphas Levi in his Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (1855) drew an image of the fictitious medieval idol Baphomet that conflated it with the goat of Mendes and the imagery of the Satanic satyr. The image of the satyr-like Baphomet and its supposed connection with Mendes has since been repeated by numerous occult writers.

In reality, regardless of an individual ram’s behavior, it is important to remember that all rams are aggressive, or have the potential to be aggressive, even if they appear ‘friendly’. Hand-reared ram-lambs may seem more docile and friendlier, but in fact they are the most dangerous since they have no fear of the shepherd. Animals that have a great deal of human contact and interaction can lose their fear of humans and can become very aggressive.

While sheep are generally docile, non-aggressive creatures, this is not necessarily the case with rams (intact males), especially during the breeding season (rut). Rams can be very aggressive and have been known to cause serious injuries, even death, to people. A ram should never be trusted, even if it is friendly or was raised as a pet; it is important to always know where the ram is and to never turn your back on him.

Goats, however, are more aggressive and inquisitive than sheep and tend to demonstrate dominance within a social grouping more than sheep. Goats display their dominance by lowering the head and pointing their horns at the subordinate animal. Although attacks against humans are few and far between, mountain goats are among the most aggressive toward their own species. When individuals are grouped together, they display, charge, and engage in mini-duels four or five times per hour. Females are typically more aggressive than males.

These animals also have an element of weirdness due to the shape of their eyes, which are horizontal – not circular like ours, or vertical like a cat’s. A broad line of sight, aided by wide, rectangular-shaped pupils, allows them to see danger approaching from their peripheral vision.  The shape of the animal’s pupil, it turns out, is closely related to the animal’s size and whether it’s a predator or prey.

  • The bounteous Pan, the god of rural scenery, shepherdi, and huntsmen,’ as the poet Milton calls him, is the Greek god of woods and fields. Originally a pastoral god from Arcadia and depicted as a wild deity with the horns and hooves of a goat, Pan was believed to dwell in the mountains and forests of ancient Greece.  Pan’s image has undergone a wide range of representation and, by Roman times, he came to be regarded as the representative of paganism and the personification of all nature.

For all that contemporary paganism declares itself on familiar terms with the divine, we have to consider that our Nameless God, may truly be a deus otiosus – one who, after completing the creation, withdrew into heaven and abandoned the government of the world to the humans.  The Ancestors are subordinate to him and act as mediators between him and the human race who are slowly destroying the planet; all the evidence is there to suggest that he no longer wishes to listen. This type of divinity, who is only willing to intervene directly in times of great need – such as drought, pestilence, or war – can be found primarily where worship has become disenfranchised from the all-inclusive earth deity, or where individual ‘earth spirits’ or minor deities obscure everything else.  

Or … no longer believing in the god’s Omnipotence – which regards him as having supreme power and able to do what he wants. Meaning he is not subject to physical limitations like mankind is. Being omnipotent, god has power over wind, water, gravity, physics, etc. and a power that is infinite, or limitless.

Or … Omniscience means all-knowing. God is all all-knowing in the sense that he is aware of the past, present, and future. Nothing takes him by surprise. His knowledge is total. He knows all that there is to know and all that can be known.

Or … Omnipresence meaning all-present. This term means that God is capable of being everywhere at the same time. It means his divine presence encompasses the whole of the universe. There is no location where he does not inhabit. This should not be confused with pantheism, which suggests that God is synonymous with the universe itself; instead, omnipresence indicates that God is distinct from the universe, but inhabits the entirety of it. He is everywhere at once

Or … Omnibenevolence – the belief that God is all good. Many theologians (for example) regard these attributes as essential to a god’s nature. In other words, if a deity did not have these characteristics, he wouldn’t be god. For example, for god to be god, he would need to have supreme power (omnipotence); if he was not omnipotent, he wouldn’t be qualified to be a god.

In reality, in primitive traditions there is a Supreme God, the Great and Almighty God, who was too distant to be of practical importance in daily life and so not worshipped directly.  But there were numerous other spirits, entities and agents which acted as intermediaries on behalf of humankind. In traditional British Old Craft, the Ancestors are worshipped directly because they do have direct influence over earthly affairs.

The Old Lass – A Faceless Goddess

by Melusine Draco

‘The important position ascribed to goddesses in the Elder Faith is very noticeable, and was doubtless owing, at least in part, to the associations of maternity and the train of thought following therefrom’, wrote William Wood-Martin.

‘Gods and goddesses were regarded as semi-spiritual beings, and as the origin, as well as the guardians or rulers of the tribe.  At this stage the god or goddess and the worshippers formed a natural unity bound up with the district they occupied.  The dissolution of the tribe destroyed the tribal religion, and destroyed the tribal deity; the god or goddess could no more exist without its tribe than the tribe without its deity.  Nevertheless, Elder Faith deities were not inanimate, obscure imports and there is little doubt but that many of them, under ancient Gaulish names, may be recognized in the old legends.  Many of the old Celtic gods-goddesses of Gaul, of Britain, and of Ireland appear to have been the nature-gods of the primitive Aryan family although of differing British and Gaulish prototypes.’  [Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland, vol 2]

‘Many singular customs of the peasantry are but faint reflected lights of the old past, for, although the Christian missionaries did their utmost, according to their light, to stamp out paganism, there remained in the hearts of the people a deeply rooted fondness for the form of worship in which they had been brought up.  It was the religion of their forefathers and despite the popular ideas of the rapid conversion of the islands to Christianity, yet in almost every district there must have remained some few who clung with tenacity to the old tenets, and handed them down from generation to generation in a more or less mutilated form.  To the present day very distinct traces of paganism may be found in the practices attributed to wise women and witches.  In these superstitions and observations of the peasantry are enshrined strange fragmentary relics of earlier creeds but their remote antiquity and now but half decipherable implications are, in general, passed unnoticed. [Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland, vol 1]

At the festival of old Imbolc – transposed into the Church calendar as Candlemas – a Christian holiday celebrating three occasions – the presentation of the child Jesus; Jesus’ first entry into the temple; and the Virgin Mary’s purification (mainly in Catholic churches). At Candlemas, many Christians (especially Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans, Orthodox and Roman Catholics) also brought their candles to their local church, where they were blessed and then used for the rest of the year.

All this Christian overlay merely confirms what an important festival this was for our pagan forebears and, as such it became the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary in the church calendar. The Christian feast-day commemorates the ceremony performed by the mother of Jesus in the temple of Jerusalem forty days after the birth of Christ in fulfillment of the Mosaic Law requiring the cleansing of a woman from the ritual impurity incurred at childbirth.  The convenience of having yet another pagan festival falling within the ‘nativity cycle’ meant that Brigid became a Catholic saint and her feast-day incorporated into the Church calendar! In the early calendar, on that morning, many candles were lit in the churches, symbolically driving out the darkness. In the afternoon, there was feasting all around, with much music as Candlemas Day (2nd February) marked the formal end of winter. 

In the pagan Celtic world it was Imbolc, the festival marking the beginning of spring that has been celebrated since ancient times. It is also a cross quarter day, midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, and the name derives from the Old Irish imbolg meaning ‘in the belly’, a time when sheep began to lactate, their udders filled and the grass began to grow. Imbolc was a time to celebrate the Celtic goddess Brigid, goddess of inspiration, healing, and smithcraft, with associations to fire, the hearth and poetry.  Also called Là Fhèill Brìghde, it corresponds to the Welsh Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau as a traditional festival marking the beginning of spring; it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man and, for Christians, especially in Ireland, it became the feast day of Saint Brigid. Local festivals marking the arrival of the first signs of spring may be named after either the Cailleach or Brìghde, while some interpretations have them as two faces of the same goddess.

Là Fhèill Brìghde, is also the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that, if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on 1st February is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood to keep herself warm in the coming months. As a result, people are generally relieved if Là Fhèill Brìghde is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is still asleep, will soon run out of firewood, and therefore winter is almost over. The Cailleach is a divine hag, a creatorix, weather and ancestor deity while Brigid is a sort of Celtic Athena, with very similar functions. Although most often presented as a mysteriously veiled, ancient woman, the Cailleach is also said to take on the guise of many different beasts and birds as she travels around the rugged landscapes of her homeland.  The Cailleach Béara is said to be one of the most ancient of mythological beings, appearing as an old crone who brings winter with her when she appears and who wields incredible power over life and death.  Her ability to control the weather and the seasons meant many communities looked on the Cailleach with a mixture of reverence and fear.

From Candlemas, the Earth and Coven practice is given over to the Old Lass – when all things in Nature are seeding and growing.  It is the time when the Old Lad is resting and when we might hear those Pan-pipings, or the sound of the lyre-strings rippling through the reeds and grasses.  It was said that if you fell asleep beneath a willow tree, the sound of the wind in its leaves could inspire, and that ‘wind in the willows’ referred to the elves whispering among themselves in willows as humans walked underneath.  The Old Lass oversees her world until Lammas when the dark tide begins to turn and the Old Lad prepares to take centre stage again – and the Coven rituals begin to reflect his presence.

Because humankind has always had a tendency to see images of its gods in his own likeness, we have come to see pagan deities very much cast in 20th century form.  Ironically in giving ‘goddess-energy’ the cartoon image of a warrior-princess or a member of the pre-Raphaelite sisterhood, the true mystery of ancient witchcraft has been lost in favor of fantasy creations.  Just as Christianity pinched the Egyptian Isis-Horus concept and promoted the Madonna and Child as a popular image, so modern paganism often adopts a similar approach to the Mother-Goddess in order to give this new religion ‘people appeal’.

For the purposes of Old Craft techniques, however, it is important to accept the energies associated with these archaic male-female aspects of magic and not transpose the concept of the loving, caring Great-Mother-Goddess of Wicca-Christianity into Old Craft working.  The female-goddess energy within Nature is just as ‘red in tooth and claw’ as male-god energy; both are equally as merciless as the other.  It is also important to understand that this energy (whether male or female) is neither malevolent nor benevolent, it is merely ‘there’waiting to be harnessed for use in magic rites.  It also means that any goddess-invocation can be fraught with danger and uncertainty.

Although not a religion, this is a belief – a belief in one’s own abilities and in the ‘Power’ that fuels the universe; and a faith – faith in one’s self and in that ‘Power’. This is not generally seen as gender specific but in truth, the Elder Faith does lean towards the male aspect since the female remains veiled and a mystery.  In other words, the ‘God’ is the public face of traditional British Old Craft while the ‘Goddess’ remains in the shadows, revered and shielded by her protector.  Not because she is some shy and defenseless creature, but because face to face she would be too terrible to look upon!  Or as the scientist who discovered the deadly Marburg filovirus observed when he saw the virus particles: ‘They were white cobras tangled among themselves, like the hair of Medusa.  They were the face of Nature herself, the obscene goddess revealed naked … breathtakingly beautiful.’  The secrets of the Elder Faith come from the understanding of these things …

We also accept that the physical worldly embodiment of the goddess – Mother Nature – is neither caring nor motherly and when she wants to cut up rough – she will, without a thought for anything, or anyone.   In the guise of ‘The Goddess’ she is usually seen as spending her days caring for her many children who inhabit and shape the landscape – often portrayed in trailing garments composed of lush plants, colourful flowers, and sinuous woody shapes. In most depictions she is meditative, embodying the spirit of the mythological ‘mother’ in Nature. Firmly entering the zeitgeist as a figure akin to that aforementioned synergetic composite of Burne-Jones in the later stages of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Guinevere of Arthurian romance, and Daenerys Stormborn from Game of Thrones – reflecting the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of the era.

Over previous decades, however, the archaeo-mythological work of Professor Marija Gimbutas was revealing a far more primal approach to discovering the persona of this ‘hidden’ goddess of Old Europe.  Not unexpectedly, her theories have been dismissed by many of her fellow archaeologists but like Carl Jung and Margaret Murray, whose work has also suffered similar professional scorn, there are elements that ‘speak’ to authentic witches on a more subliminal level. As writer Allen Bennett once observed it’s that moment in reading when you come across something … ‘a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.’ It was as if, on discovering the writings of Marija Gimbutas, the tectonic plates of archaeo-mythologica (Old Europe) and esoteria (Old Craft) collided – and made complete sense of the way we viewed this ‘hidden’ Primal Goddess within our own Tradition.

We also found ourselves asking, but where exactly was this ‘Old European’ culture located?  Between c7000 and c3500BC the inhabitants of this region developed a much more complex social organisation than their western and northern neighbours. In the Goddesses & Gods of Old Europe, this area is designated as extending from the Aegean and Adriatic, including the islands of Sicily and Crete, as far north as Czechoslovakia, southern Poland, the western Ukraine and parts of Anatolia.  Suggesting that the earliest possible representations were those prehistoric ‘Venus’ figurines found from across Western Europe to Siberia – all sharing the same characteristics of pendulous breasts, sagging stomachs and huge buttocks; but more importantly the heads are small and featureless, i.e., without identity.

Some of the earliest mythical stories pay tribute to an ancient Mother-Goddess whose fertility and abundance give nourishment to a culture. Whether a life-giving goddess like Mesopotamian Ishtar, or a physically ample prehistoric female Venus of Willendorf, these sacred women were recognized for their powers of creation and survival. Portrayals of these goddesses typically show them as well-endowed, rotund, healthy, with an emphasis on their gender traits.

  • Venus of Willendorf – She symbolizes the nurturing and support that mother-hood creates. She is fat, showing her abundant life-energy. This sculpture of a so-called Venus – because of her exaggerated breasts and hips – was probably used as a fertility fetish. Fertility and hunting were essential components of survival during the nomadic, Paleolithic era … and she’s become quite an icon in modern age – even being recreated in colossal scale out of metal for a shopping Mall in Latvia!
  • Venus of Lespugue is a famous prehistoric female nude found near Lespugue which also shows an exaggerated female body. Made from reindeer horn, the form is different from the Willendorf example as it is more abstracted as a series of rounded balloon or grape type forms. Both though emphasis her female shape and de-emphasize her arms as they rest as thin shapes across her breasts.

In reality, almost all Neolithic goddesses are composite images with an accumulation of traits from the pre-agricultural and agrarian eras. Those ‘buxom wenches’ with their massive thighs, breasts and buttocks that suggest a prehistoric society weaned on junk food, or suffering from a thyroid dysfunction were only one aspect of the goddess. In other sculptures of the time we see lithe, elegant figures of the Cycladic and Stargazer imagery, and the mysterious female hands of the Paleothithic cave paintings.

Here we have multiple engraved and painted images of female sexual organs, animals and geometric figures discovered in southern France that are believed to be the first known wall art, created some 37,000 years ago.  Since this site, Abri Castanet in southern France, is very close to Chauvet, it is likely that the artists in both cases came from what is known as the Aurignacian culture, which existed until about 28,000 years ago. Additional Aurignacian artwork, however, clearly represents female sexual organs. The Venus of Hohle Fels, for example, is an ivory figurine dating to at least 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, according to Nicholas Conard, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tubingen who reported the find. The figurine, found in a southwestern cave in Germany, depicts a woman with what Conard described as ‘large projecting breasts’ and a pronounced vulva and labia majora visible between the woman’s open legs.

Another surprising revelation is that much of the cave art dating back to the Paleolithic indicates much of it was done by women, not men as is commonly believed. Anthropologist, Dean Snow has been studying ancient handprints in caves at the behest of National Geographic for nearly a decade. It began, he says, after reading about work done by geologist John Manning – he’d found that average finger lengths in people vary by gender. Men tend to have longer ring fingers than index fingers for example, while the opposite is true for women. Some time later, he reports, he was looking at pictures of cave art and noticed that the fingers on the hands appeared to conform to Manning’s description of female hands. That set him off on a voyage of discovery.

He began looking at cave art in a new way, and noted that differences between gender finger length in Paleolithic people was more pronounced than it is in modern humans who have more overlap.  The cave art under review is early examples of hand stencils, where the person making them placed their hand against a wall then blew paint at it (through a straw or directly from their mouth) to create an outline.  Up until recently most scientists have assumed cave art was most likely done by men – the depictions of women and animals being hunted seemed to sum up the life of hunters, the male half of a hunter-gatherer society. That idea has slowly been changing as archaeologists have begun to take a closer look. Biologist Dale Guthrie, for example, conducted a study of the hand art and concluded that they were most likely made by adolescent boys. Snow theorized that if women were doing most of the cave art, it was possible they played a larger, more important role in how hunter-gatherer societies functioned than has been thought.

It is obvious from earliest times that lots of things were changing when it came to shaping the forms of history.  Images of the Nile Goddess are from the earliest period in Egyptian history before the time of the Pharaohs, called the Predynasitc Period (c.3500-3400 BC). This Egyptian fertility goddess raises her arms upward gesturing to the sky as perhaps part of a ritual. She has a bird-shaped face, narrow waist, small breasts, and elongated arms with rounded hand ends. Originating in a different country than the other European fertility goddesses, this Egyptian statue displays a dramatically different female body. She has a spherical shape from her hips down without definitive legs or feet. Her breasts are more size appropriate for her figure. Yet, her face is not human, nor are her arms, more closely aligning her with the spirit and powers of a bird.

During the period between 3200 and 2000 BC, the small Cycladic islands in the Aegean became home to a flourishing pre-Greek culture, with the most prominent craft being stone-cutting, especially marble sculpture. The abundance of high quality, white marble on the islands, encouraged its wide use for the creation of a wide range of artifacts. Among these, Cycladic statues were the most distinctive because of the great numbers in which they are found, and the significance they held for their owners.  The majority of Cycladic figurines show women, nude with the arms folded over the belly and the long feet, soles slopping downwards. We do not know whether they were meant to show mortals or deities, but in the absence of any other suggestion, probably symbolized the worship of the ‘Mother Goddess’. In this case, the statues may have been conceived as representations of the Goddess, or companions to her.

And, more than 5,000 years ago, in what is now modern Turkey, Stone Age sculptors were carving small, sleek, surprisingly modern-looking human figures. With their heads tilted back, eyes staring upward to the sky, these statues are known as ‘stargazers’. Only about 30 are known to exist, including Statuette of a Woman: ‘The Stargazer’  at the Cleveland Museum of Art. One of the earliest sculptures of the human figure in the museum’s collection, this example is even rarer as it is one of the few that is whole and unbroken.

‘Although diminutive in size, Stargazer has a monumentality that belies her 6 ¾-inch height. In form she is pure and simple and highly stylized. She is recognizably human but only in the barest sense. Her oversized and oval-shaped head is tilted dramatically backward and sits on a slender bird-like neck. Her nose is an elongated ridge, and small, circular eyes are done in the slightest of relief. She has no mouth. Her gender is made evident by the incised lines in the pelvic area. These same lines define her legs until you reach the feet, which are held tightly together at the figure’s narrowest point. She is carved out of translucent marble that emulates soft flesh when polished, adding to the mystical quality of the figure.’ [Cleveland Museum of Art]

And that feeling of ‘faceless’ wonder trickles down to the present day, causing the Curator at the CMA to comment about that fascinating Stargazer image: “All we can do is speculate on the creative and spiritual forces that created this beautiful and mystical figure that symbolises our search for the divine.” But, because of the way we’ve been schooled in the art of witchcraft, Old Craft witches are more likely to ‘see’ their goddess figure in terms of the Stargazer;while contemporary paganism appears to favour the predominantly medievalist forms of Burne-Jones and Rossetti.

 Nevertheless, what all these primitive images share a distinctive feature of a strong but featureless face: the image remains hidden because we are deliberately prevented from seeing the true face of this Primal Goddess.  A concept that was later rejuvenated with the replacing of the sculpted face of Cybele with … ‘a certain [black meteorite] stone of no great size, which could be carried in a man’s hand without exerting any pressure on him, dusky black in colour, uneven with some edges projecting, and which we all see today placed in that very image in lieu of a face, rough and uncut, giving to the image a countenance by no means life-like …’ [Arnobius, c255-330AD]

The sacred stone of Pessinus (the agalma diipetes as it is tellingly called) is exemplary.  In 204BC this small and light-black meteorite, which was regarded as the Great Mother, was brought to Rome and, encased in silver, was substituted for the mouth (or face) of the statue of Cybele. It is in the unworked stone itself that the divinity of the image is believed to reside.  When the stone is placed in an anthropomorphic setting or when, in the case of the Pessinus meteorite, it takes the place of that which normally provides us with the most visible testimony to the life of the statue – the face – then we may clearly say that the goddess resides in that setting, too.

In Power of Images, Professor David Freedberg offers up the explanation that this sacred stone, like many others, was deliberately left unworked because it was in this state that its sacredness resided. ‘Shaping it would presumably have deprived it of its sacred content, or, at least diminished it; the only course left was to have it set in such a way as to emphasise or make plain its divine status.’   Even as late as Imperial Roman, when copies of Classic Greek beauty were demanded by the interior designers of the day, these enigmatic faceless matrons were still thought of as sacred.  ‘For 5th-century beholders that ‘face’ [of Demeter in the Museum at Cyrene] can hardly but have generated as association with the kinds of mysterious powers so often associated with unworked stones,’ Freedberg concluded.

This primitive imagery has, to a large degree, over-shadowed how we view archetypal goddesses and the women’s social role in pre-history.  The oldest named goddess, for example is not a mother figure.  Inanna was the ancient Sumerian goddess of love, sensuality, fertility, procreation, and also of war. She later became identified by the Akkadians and Assyrians as the goddess Ishtar, and further with the Hittite Sauska, and the Phoenician Astarte. Her power and provocation is almost always a defining characteristic in any of the tales told of her as she rose in prominence from a local vegetative deity of the Sumerian people to the Queen of Heaven and the most popular goddess in all of Mesopotamia.

The goddess appears in many ancient Mesopotamian myths, most notably where she brings knowledge and culture to the city of Uruk after receiving the gifts from the god of wisdom, Enki, while he is drunk. InninsagurraNinmesarra, and Inninmehusa, are three powerful hymns which influenced generations of Mesopotamians in their understanding of the goddess and elevated her status. Inanna’s personal ambition is atteste in a number of works which feature her. Dr. Jeremy Black writes: ‘Violent and lusting after power, she stands beside her favourite kings as they fight. Her journey to Eridu in order to carry away the sacred meh (gifts of civilization) and her descent to the underworld are both described as an intension to extend her power.’

Inanna is always depicted as a young woman, never as a mother or faithful wife, who is fully aware of her feminine power and confronts life boldly without fear of how she will be perceived by others, especially by men.  In The Epic of Gilgamesh, as Ishtar, she is seen as promiscuous, jealous, and spiteful. When she tries to seduce Gilgamesh, he lists her many other lovers who have all met with bad ends at her hands; enraged at his rejection, Inanna, then becomes central to the story of one of the greatest of ancient epics. 

Although some writers have claimed otherwise, Inanna was never seen as a Mother Goddess and one aspect of her personality is that of a goddess of love and sexual behaviour, but especially connected with extra-marital sex and – in a way which has not been fully researched – with prostitution. Inanna is not a goddess of marriage, nor is she a mother goddess. The so-called ‘sacred marriage’ in which she participates carries no overtones of moral implication for human marriages.  Rather, Inanna is an independent woman who does as she pleases, quite often without regard for consequences, and either manipulates, threatens, or tries to seduce others to fix the difficulties her behaviour creates. There are no poems, tales, or legends which in any way portray her differently – and none which depict her in the role of the Mother Goddess.

Strangely enough, the goddesses of the Old World were frequently associated with the big cats – and lions in particular.   Cultural depictions of lions were known in European, African and Asian  countries and have been an important symbol for humans for tens of thousands of years. The earliest graphic representations feature lions as organized hunters with great strength, strategies, and skills. In later depictions of human cultural ceremonies, lions were often used symbolically and may have played significant roles in magic, as deities, or close association with deities, and served as intermediaries and clan identities.  For example:

  • Inanna is often shown in the company of a lion, denoting courage, and sometimes even riding a lion as a sign of her supremacy over the ‘king of beasts’.
  • Artemis in her role as putnia theron – ‘queen of the wild beasts’ – was associated with lions.  The Potnia Theron or Mistress of Animals is a widespread motif in ancient art from the Mediterranean world and the ancient Near East, showing a central human, or human-like, female figure who grasps two animals, one to each side.
  • Atargatis – her throne flanked by lions was the Syrian mother goddess also venerated in Asia Minor and Greece during the Hellenistic-Roman period.
  • The Egyptians had several goddesses who were associated with lions, with the most well-known being Bastet and Sekhmet.  Mehit, Triphis and Pachet were a localized deities. Urthekau  – ‘she who is rich in magic’ – was a personification of the mysterious supernatural powers, which the Egyptians imagined as being inherent in the crown.  The lion-headed-crown-goddess dwelt in the State sanctuary and could figure as an epithet for other goddesses.
  • The Hurrians were a people of the Bronze Age Near East and two of their principal goddesses – Hebat and Sauska – were depicted with lions.
  • Kades was a Canaanite goddess shown standing naked on a lion.
  • Cybele – was shown in art in a chariot drawn by lions and/or panthers.

Nearer to home, one Highland legend tells of the Cat Sidhe, a fairy cat, believed to be a witch in disguise. Reputed to be untameable, the ‘British tiger’, as it is sometimes known, has an honoured place in Highland culture. Early on in Scottish history, Caithness and Sutherland formed the Pictish province, Cataibh, meaning land of the Cat Tribe or Catti. Caithness still retains an obvious echo of that name. The Duke of Sutherland’s Gaelic title is Morair Chat, meaning ‘The Great Man of the Cats’. There is a cat in the clan crest, and their motto is Sans Peur (‘Without fear’). Other clans have similar themes, reflecting a respect for this animal’s fierce spirit. The Clan Mackintosh crest also features a feisty-looking cat, with the motto ‘Touch not the cat bot (bot meaning ‘without’) a glove’, and for the Clan MacGillivray the motto is ‘Touch not this cat’.

The wildcat was a totem of a number of other early Celtic tribes, including the Irish ‘cat-heads’ – possibly warriors who wore cat skin over their battle helmets. More often than not, the feisty little creatures drive off their foes, sometimes inflicting nasty lacerations in the process. According to the Scottish Wildcat Association, large dogs, park rangers, and ill-prepared veterinarians are among the most common recipients of ‘non-hunting’ wildcat attacks but there is no reason why this fascinating creature can’t be adopted as a power/totem animal in traditional witchcraft.

Many newcomers to the Coven have a problem with viewing the Old Lass in these abstract forms and often do not understand that she is no less potent because we cannot see her face, or she’s not wearing a posh frock!  For us, both magically and mystically, the Old Lass doesn’t have any tangible form and like the ‘light-black meteorite, which was regarded as the Great Mother’ in ancient times, we consider that the world of Nature in its unworked form is the state in which her sacredness resides. Re-shaping it into a recognisable or more pleasing aspect would deprive our goddess of her sacredness (or, at least diminish it) and the only course left is to have it set in our minds in such a way as to emphasize or make plain her divine status against the raw framework of the forests and mountains.

The reason for the great number and variety of Old European ‘goddess’ images lies in the fact that this symbolism is lunar and chthonic, celestial and terrestrial, built around the understanding that life on earth is in eternal transformation, in constant and rhythmic change between creation and destruction, birth and death. Therefore, the Primal Goddess is seen in everything and from the earliest of times has been associated with a variety of creatures in a host of manifestations. It is an inescapable fact that this ‘hidden’ Primal Goddess of Old Europe remains a tangible power that can be tapped into and channelled for magical, mystical and spiritual reasons. It is the elusive power that is released into us at the moment of Initiation when we come face to face with deity and we may look upon the face of the Primal Goddess for the first and last time, when kindred calls to kindred and blood calls to blood.

Nevertheless, for most followers of the Elder Faith the Primal Goddess remains a sigil and symbol, allegory and metaphor, and we learn how to follow her by respecting the world she has created. She is Creatrix, Death-Wielder and Regeneratrix – the eternal triple deity. And the reason we say she is too terrible to look upon is due to the realisation that in her eyes, our lives are worth no more than that of an ant or hover-fly. And, as and when we meet her face to face, it is with the understanding that she is not the benevolent Mother-figure of popular paganism; she is a disinterested but not dysfunctional being whom we approach with awe and reverence

I Hear Water Dreaming …

by Melusine Draco

I love the sound of water – whether it’s rainfall; the soft gurgle of a woodland stream tripping over the stones in its bed; or the thunderous roar of a waterfall crashing onto rocks – the sensation is an assault on the senses.  The first two are the soothing, dreamy caress of Nature’s whispering; the third the dynamic power of Nature screaming out loud for the sheer hell of it, especially after a recent downpour.  Lakes, of course, aren’t known for their ‘voices’ but for those who stop and listen there is always the sound of  water lapping on the inland lake shore and the gentle wind blowing across the surface that periodically builds and then dies away, causes the reeds to rustle in its wake.  This sacred landscape is never silent.

Ovid’s Fasti, ‘There is a lake, girt with the dark wood of the valley of Aricia, sanctified by an ancient feeling of awe … There was a grove below the Aventine dark with the shade of holm-oaks, and when you saw it, you might say ‘there is a spirit there’ …

H C Hart [Climbing in the British Isles 1895] was much impressed by my local Lough Muskry, the largest freshwater lake in the Galtees, waxing lyrical and valedictory “… Still grander, however, are the cliffs above Lough Muskry. These tower to a height of about 1,200 ft in great terraces and vegetated walls above the north and north-east ends of the lake …  Lough Curra is the highest lake in the range that ‘frequently and inoffensively burps, giggling at its edges, where the lower, naked slopes of the Galtimoor have plunged their extremities … Things jump in the lake. Indiscernible. Could be fish, could be joy …’  And last but not least, there’s Muskry’s hidden little sister-lough of Farbreaga, that has been described by a hill-walker as ‘like having an out-of-body experience, especially when you add the dramatic conglomerate rock formations and the dizzying views down the shaded cliffs of the cwm to the frozen lake below’. On the flanks of these hills and on the mist-shrouded summits of the mountains, we find megalithic tombs, dolmens and stone forts that take us back to the dawn of pre-history.  And we might also still say: ‘There is a spirit here …’

Water was sacred in all primal cultures and every pool and spring was believed to have its own resident spirit.  Water, however, is rarely still and is ‘created’ by the global water cycle that draws moisture from the freshwater lakes and salty oceans in the form of evaporation.  It circulates on air currents as water vapour and condenses to form clouds. Most of this water precipitates back into the oceans, but some of it falls on the land as rain or snow and from there makes its way downhill to the sea.  It moves as rivers and glaciers, and it sinks into the soil and rocks in a great recirculation. Around and around the water has cycled for four-billion years, in trickle and torrent, all the while eroding and shaping the land.

In the 2008 UNESCO lecture – Water: Religion, Mythology, Art and Beauty – we are reminded that water plays a central role in many religions and beliefs around the world.  It is the source of life; represents rebirth and cleanses and purifies the body with these two qualities conferring a highly symbolic – even sacred – status to water.  Water is a key element in ceremonies and religious rites and often seen as a divine agency since ‘sacred’ water is never passive – because it is considered to have powers that can transform the world.  Rivers, rain, ponds, lakes and glaciers are some of the forms water may take when interpreted and incorporated into cultural and religious spheres.  It is seen as a living and spiritual matter, working as mediator between human and gods – and often represents the border between this and Otherworld.

The relationship of water to millions of humans is guided by tradition and belief rather than scientific learning because it unceasingly changes shape and transforms itself, therefore becoming the symbol of fertility that can be found in all myths and beliefs. Water is also seen as possessing medicinal virtues since some are credited as having miraculous healing powers.

A sacred spring, or holy well, is a small body of water emerging from underground and revered either in a religious or superstitious context, sometimes both. Sacred wells and springs are usually depicted as originating in the Otherworld – that parallel dimension whose inhabitants have the power to control the natural forces of this world. Such sacred water sources are also often linked to the fruit of certain trees, such as the hazel and alder, and groves of these trees would have created a nature temple around the spring.

The lore and mythology of ancient Greece was rich with sacred springs, among the most important bring, the Corycian – located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus; the Pierian – sacred to the Muses; and the Castalian at Delphi all of which are still associated with their ancient deities. Another deity may be found at the healing springs at Buxton where the name Aquae Arnemetiae means ‘the waters of the goddess who lived in the sacred grove’ – a concept that united two sacred Celtic concepts.

In medieval Europe, holy wells were usually pagan sacred sites that later became Christianized and the term ‘holy well’ is commonly employed to refer to any water source of limited size (i.e. not a lake or river, but including pools and natural springs) that has some significance in local folklore. This can take the form of a particular name, an associated legend, or the attribution of healing qualities to the water through the numinous presence of its guardian spirit or saint, or a ceremony or ritual, focusing on the well’s siting. 

Each spring, therefore, has its own patron often with its own genius loci – a protective spirit of place – and every place has its own unique qualities, not only in terms of its physical makeup, but of how it is perceived by a visitor. And this is what can give a place its own ambiance – an atmosphere that can send a shiver of fear along our spine, or an inexplicable sense of peace and well-being.  It should also be stressed, however, that the genius loci is under no obligation to make us welcome just because we label ourselves ‘pagan’ and see ourselves as simpatico with the Old Ways. In contemporary usage, genius loci usually refers to a location’s distinctive atmosphere, or a ‘spirit of place’, rather than necessarily a guardian spirit.  Therefore if our intention is not ethical or virtuous, then the protective spirit is within its rights to make us feel unwelcome in this sacred place.

It is not uncommon for a student to ask why they’ve experienced feelings of rejection or even malevolence in what they thought would be a haven of pagan tranquility – and can’t wait to get away from the place.  It seems cruel to suggest that the guardian took against a member of their party but this could be the simple truth.  It’s not a personal thing but it could be that one of the visitors was manifesting a certain kind of negative energy that the guardian found unacceptable.  Many have reported the same type of rejection when visiting ancient woodland and there’s nothing to be done about it other than to leave with as little fuss as possible and accept the guardian’s dismissal with good grace!  Persist and we may receive a sharp slap in rebuke for our presumptuousness.

Other holy wells are located in areas of natural beauty, often in groves of trees, in hollows in the landscape, at the edge of waysides, or at points where borders and boundaries run or meet.

A certain ritual, known as a ‘round’ or ‘station’ is performed in order to receive a requested favour or cure of a particular ailment. This involves particular prayers being said while walking around the well an odd number of times in the direction of the sun, and drinking or bathing in the waters at specific intervals. To complete the round, a rag, symbolising the ailment, is tied to the sacred ‘rag tree’ – usually an ash, hawthorn, holly, or oak. If the round is completed in reverse in the name of a third party, a curse is placed on that person, but worse consequences are reputed to befall the person who performs such an act if it is not deserved.  It is generally reported that the water from a holy well cannot be brought to boil, and the wood from its sacred tree cannot be made to burn. [Old Moore’s Almanack]

Further, for many wells the appropriate or most efficacious time of day for the visit was specified, with dawn or just before sunrise being the most usual, as was the direction of approach to the well and the direction and number of times of circumnambulation. One of the commonest stipulations was the need for silence, if not for the entire duration of the ritual or visit to the well then at least for a substantial part of it. Thus to obtain the healing of a particular well the patient may have to visit at dawn on Beltane morning, approach from the east and walk three times deosil around the well in silence before speaking the required words of prayer, drinking the water from the specified vessel and finally making the specified offerings. At wells where the patient had to arrive before or at dawn, it was almost universal that he had to have finished his business and be out of sight of the well before actual sunrise. Sometimes the patient had to wipe the afflicted part of the body with a rag dipped in the water, or arrive at the site with a rag bound round the relevant part of the body and the rag was subsequently hung on a nearby tree to rot. [White Dragon Magazine]

These practices represent such an integral part of our pagan heritage that it would be morally wrong for us to ignore the customs associated with the place … Nevertheless, an over-enthusiastic application of this tradition in scattered sites around Scotland, England and Ireland, and other places where the pagan roots still show through the modern landscape, we may catch a glimpse of a spooky sight: trees weighed down with rotting clothing and rags clustered around a spring. Known as ‘clootie wells’, this ritual dates back to Celtic belief in the cures of water spirits, and continues as a source of spiritual healing.

While the ritual varies around the different clootie wells – named for the Scottish word clootie referring to cloth – the principle is that by leaving a rag on the tree, before or after cleansing a tortured part of our body with it using water from the spring, we will receive some relief from illness or pain as the rag disintegrates in the forest. The sites were traditionally visited before sunrise, and on sacred festival days. The efficacy of such curing processes varied but might not be complete until the rags had completely deteriorated.

In some places, human hair, coins, whole items of children’s clothing, and other offerings join the ripped bits of fabric, sometimes marked with written messages. It’s considered very bad luck to take any of the offerings, although there’s been concern that the quantity of rags is hurting the trees and many have died as a result of the weight. Passing visitors, having no belief in the custom or of our pagan ways are despoiling these sacred sites by leaving their rubbish behind – and not in the spirit of offering!

Souterrain (from French sous terrain, meaning ‘under ground’) is a name given by archaeologists to a type of underground structure associated mainly with the European Atlantic Iron Age.  These structures appear to have been brought northwards from Gaul during the late Iron Age and played an important role in Elder Faith belief; often containing rude shallow stone basins that were believed to hold water.  The idea of the curative property of water contained in depressions in a rock was widespread – including that trapped in tree cavities or depressions where branches meet.

Generally speaking, however, it is well known that water has soothing effects and it is not surprising that meditation and water are considered a natural combination in the Buddhist tradition, where it is the symbol of serenity, purity, and clarity of thought. Calm, still, spring water becomes a mirror reflecting everything that surrounds it, and this helps as a guide to focus inward. Rippling lake water reflects on how moods affect actions and how those actions affect everything around; whereas a waterfall produces thunderous reverberations of an unrelenting force.

These images we can find in our own sacred landscapes – whether it be by the Chalice Well at Glastonbury, the glacial lakes of the Galtee Mountains, the Henrhyd woodland falls in the Brecon Beacons – or wherever we live in the world.  Take a moment to sit and listen and we, too, may hear the water dreaming in the sacred landscape … wherever kindred calls to kindred and blood calls to blood.

The belief in the sacredness of life-giving water and the sources of rivers, springs and wells extends from prehistory to the present day.  The sacred well or spring was an ancient concept firmly established long before the Celts and Christianity arrived in the British Isles and was so firmly entrenched in the indigenous mind that the Church felt it more provident to adopt the practice rather than make any attempt to suppress it. As a result the majority of those famous ‘holy wells’ in existence today were assigned an appropriate saint merely in order to strip away their earlier pagan associations.

We can chart the importance of water to our Ancestors simply by the incredible amount of precious artifacts that have been discovered in watery places.  Votive offerings are defined as ‘objects deposited, without the intention of recovery in a sacred place for broadly religious purposes in order to gain favour with supernatural forces’. These offerings have been described in historical Roman era and Greek sources, although similar acts continue into the present day, for example in traditional Catholic culture and, arguably, in the modern day practice of tossing coins into a wishing well or fountain. [The Deposition of Votive Offering in Watery Places]

In Europe votive deposits date to the Neolithic era, with polished axe hoards, reaching a peak in the late Bronze Age. High status artifacts such as swords and spearheads were more commonly cast into bodies of water or peat bogs, from where they could not possibly have been recovered. Often objects were broken, thereby ‘killing’ the objects to put them even further beyond utilitarian use before deposition, which is why the purposeful discarding of valuable items such as swords and spearheads is understood to have had ritual overtones. Numerous items have since been found in rivers, lakes and former wet-places by metal-detectorists, members of the public and archaeologists.

The pre-historian Richard Bradley makes a strong case in his book, A Passage of Arms, for seeing nearly all metal objects of this period found in lakes and rivers as being religious offerings, especially since many votive sites are associated with the remains of wooden platforms or causeways from which the offerings were thrown.  For example: several finds from the River Severn suggest that the river had a role in the prehistoric period as a place for votive offerings, since Bronze Age weapons have been dredged from the river at various locations near Worcester.  Not to mention …

‘The Sweet Track – an ancient causeway in the Somerset Levels that was constructed c.3807BC and is the second-oldest timber trackway discovered in the British Isles, dating to the Neolithic period. The track extended across the now largely drained marsh between what was then an island at and a ridge of high ground at Shapwick, a distance close to 1.2 miles. The track is one of a network that once crossed the Somerset Levels. Various artifacts and prehistoric finds, including a jadeitite ceremonial axe head, have been found in the peat bogs along its length.Wooden artefacts found at the site include paddles, a dish, arrow shafts, parts of four hazel bows, a throwing axe, yew pins, digging sticks, a mattock, a comb, toggles, and spoon fragment. Finds made from other materials, such as flint flakes, arrowheads, and a chipped flint axe (in mint condition) have also been made over time.’ [Water: A Spiritual Journey]

Similarly, at Flag Fen near Peterborough, Francis Pryor has excavated an extraordinary timber causeway and a massive quantity of Bronze Age and Iron Age weaponry. In the surrounding waters of Flag Fen votive offerings have been found, e.g., daggers broken in half placed on top of each other. This supports the theory that Flag Fen was a site involved in religious rites, as great wealth was being thrown into the water. One theory is that these were being given as votive offerings to the gods, to ask them to stop the environmental changes which were occurring around that time. Amongst the daggers and jewellery, there were a number of small, white beach pebbles. These were not natural to the local area which suggests that people travelled from afar to give offerings to their gods.

The Llyn Cerrig Bach excavation on Anglesey revealed a large votive hoard of Iron Age metalwork – swords, spears, chariot fittings, horse bridles, cauldrons, a trumpet, currency bars, animal bones and two sets of slave chains, all of which had been deposited over many years. Many of these items had also been deliberately broken. Some of the items appear to have been of local manufacture, but many originate from southern England, suggesting that the fame of Llyn Cerrig Bach as a holy site may have spread well beyond the immediate area; it is also possible that the items were traded, or plunder captured in warfare by the local tribes. Like Flag Fen, it is believed that there may have been a wooden causeway between a rock platform and a small island in the middle of the lake.


One of the most significant pieces of ancient Celtic military equipment found in Britain, the Battersea Shield is decorated in the typically La Tène style, consisting of circles and spirals. As a decorative piece it would not have been an effective shield in combat and, as it shows no signs of battle damage, it is believed that the shield was cast into the river as a votive offering (to stave off threat of Roman invasion perhaps?) and was never used in battle. The bronze shield inlaid with enamel dates from the beginning of the 1st c.AD, was discovered in the river Thames at Battersea (Middlesex).

In Ireland, many discoveries of this type have also been made in bogs. In the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, at least sixty-three types of swords, spearheads, gold bowls and gold dress-fasteners, dated 900-600 BC, were discovered in the Bog of Cullen. From the Bog of Dowris, an impressive 7th-century BC hoard of swords, chapes, spearheads, socketed axe-heads, knives and gouges, razors, buckets, cauldrons and horns, was dredged.

Similarly, on the Continent, a large assemblage of weaponry, jewellery, tools and perishable organic materials (dating from the 3rd century BC onwards), was retrieved from Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland.  In Duchcov (Czech Republic), a huge 4th-century BC bronze cauldron containing about 2,500 La Tène jewels was discovered in a thermal spring called Obří pramen – ‘The Giant’s Spring’. The archaeological discoveries of hoards in lakes are all evidence in support of the accounts of the Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman historian Justinus, who relate that the Volcae Tectosages had flung a huge treasure composed of silver and gold into the Lake of Toulouse to appease the gods’ wrath. It was said that the Roman consul Quintus Servilius Caepio, who seized and plundered the city in 106AD and fished up the gold in the sacred lake, was doomed to a tragic end.

The deposition of votive offerings is attested in other watery places, too, and archaeological discoveries have shown that hoards were generally dropped at specific areas, such as fords. The only difference between river and lake/bog deposits is, as Aidan O’Sullivan explains, that ‘weaponry is dominant in rivers, while ceremonial items (cauldron, horns, gold) tend to be mostly found in bogs’. In Gaul, a significant number of Late Bronze Age swords were discovered in the River Loire, and numerous Iron Age spearheads and swords were recovered from the River Saône, more specifically at fords. From the River Thames in Britain, spearheads, swords, pieces of armour and defensive weapons have been dredged since the 19th century. These include the two Wandsworth shield bosses, dating to the 3rd-1st century BC; the 1st-century BC horned helmet and the bronze Battersea shield inlaid with enamel. Similarly, in Ireland, swords, dirks and rapiers, dating from the Bronze and Iron Ages, were found in the beds of the Rivers Shannon, Bann, Barrow and Érne at particular sites.

Archaeological studies have revealed that the deposition of these artifacts in these ‘wet places’ was a particularly widespread custom in the Bronze and Iron Ages. Aidan O’Sullivan, speaking of Ireland and Britain, shows that the Ages can be differentiated with regard to the evolution of the practice. ‘In the Middle Bronze Age, it was mainly weapons and tools, such as dirks, rapiers and axes, which were deposited in rivers. From the Late Bronze Age, the ritual phenomenon developed considerably: hoards of weapons, tools, personal ornaments and musical instruments were placed in watery places. In the Iron Age, the deposition of swords, spearheads, spear-butts, jewels, bronze cauldron and horse trappings predominated.’

What emerges from the comprehensive analysis by Richard Bradley in Passage of Arms is that the deposition of weaponry and personal ornaments in rivers, lakes and bogs is not meaningless and insignificant. The large number of artifacts consistently deposited in specific areas of rivers, lakes and bogs, from the Bronze Age onwards, shows that those items were not accidentally dropped or lost. This is all the more probable since many of the metal materials had been previously damaged or destroyed before being deposited. Destroying the weapons before offering them to the gods was a practice known from prehistory and especially during Celtic times.

But to return to the subject in hand, as Ian Bradley reminds us, ‘wells, springs, pools, lakes and rivers have been regarded as especially sacred sites, the dwelling places of deities, gateways to the next world and sources of healing and rejuvenation’ … so let’s go out and reconnect with these spirits of the landscape …

Waterfalls are commonly formed in the upper course of a river in steep mountains. Because of their landscape position, many waterfalls occur over bedrock fed by a small contributing area, so may be ephemeral and flow only during rainstorms or significant snowmelt. The further downstream, the more perennial a waterfall can be. Waterfalls can have a wide range of widths and depths.  At the base of most waterfalls the waters erode a plunge pool, which is enlarged by the scouring action of the rock fragments from the cliff face.

My first encounter with a ‘real’ waterfall was at the Rhine Falls while on a school trip to Switzerland in the late 1950s. The Falls were formed in the last ice age, approximately 14,000 to 17,000 years ago, by erosion-resistant rocks narrowing the riverbed. In 1840, author Mary Shelley had visited them while on a tour of Europe with her son and described her visit in a travel narrative that she published in 1844, Rambles in Germany and Italy: “A portion of the cataract arches over the lowest platform, and the spray fell thickly on us, as standing on it and looking up, we saw wave, and rock, and cloud, and the clear heavens through its glittering ever-moving veil. This was a new sight, exceeding anything I had ever before seen; however, not to be wet through, I was obliged quickly to tear myself away.”

Waterfalls are a favourite subject of artists and photographers alike. Discussing painting and literature, Brian J. Hudson points out that ‘the popularity of waterfalls appears to have grown considerably between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries [in] the period of the Grand Tour.’  The force of the water has a sense of energy often missing from streams or even rivers. So it’s hardly surprising that legends might spring up about these wonderful sites. And people love to visit them because they have amazed, terrified and beguiled mankind since the dawn of time. They’ve attracted lovers, explorers and treasure hunters for centuries … some of whom never made it home.

As Ian Bradley points out, however: ‘The religions of the Far East often combine veneration of specific water sites with a more general emphasis on water’s spiritual symbolism and message.  The Japanese make pilgrimages to waterfalls and gaze for hours at the unruffled surface of a temple pond.  This is because waterfalls are seen as places of spiritual power. On some levels, most people can sense this to be true and for those who really feel, waterfalls provide not just a sense of wonder, but a way to expand our own spirits. For the animist, given to direct perception of the spiritual world just beyond our everyday sight, waterfalls provide both personal proof and further opportunity to sense the world of the spirit. After all, animism is not about belief so much as experience.  It is a truism of the animist world that liminality brings a glimpse of what lies beyond the everyday. This, then, would help explain why waterfalls have such awesome power.

In the Japanese Shinto tradition, waterfalls are held as sacred and standing under them is believed to purify, since they often relate to a great release of emotion, rejuvenation and renewal of spirit. Misogi is the practice of ritual purification by washing the entire body and in Kyoto, people douse themselves under Kiyomizu Temple’s Otowa no taki (Sound-of-Wings) waterfall, although the majority of visitors drink from the waters rather than plunging into them! Every year, people take pilgrimages to sacred waterfalls, lakes and rivers, either alone or in small groups, to perform misogi. Mount Ontake, the Kii mountain range and Mount Yoshino are but a few examples of ancient and well known areas for misogi in Japan.

Misogi is also used in some forms of martial arts, especially aikido, to prepare the mind for training and to learn how to develop one’s energy centre. The founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, regularly used this form of meditation to complement his training and search for perfection.  Participants enter the waterfall while continuously chanting the phrase harai tamae kiyome tamae rokkon shōjō –  asking the kami to wash away the impurity from the six elements that make up the human being, the five senses and the mind. In the foothills of Mt Ontake there are waterfalls under which the faithful may stand. A huge network of streams and rivers crisscross Otaki’s rugged landscape, and there are numerous waterfalls around the village. Kiyotaki and Shintaki Falls are the best known, and have been sacred places of purification for centuries. The currents that feed them flow from Mt. Ontake itself.

Takigyo, or waterfall purification, consists of standing beneath the falling flow. Both Kiyotaki and Shintaki falls are around 30 meters high. Traditionally, takigyo involved cleansing the mind of extraneous thought to enhancing the clarity of meditation. It also held symbolic value as a kind of mountain ‘baptism’, joining the dusty village below to the pristine heights. In the old days pilgrims could only begin climbing Mt. Ontake after 100 days of austerities at the falls, accompanied by the appropriate rituals and long periods of meditation. These days, the practitioners of Ontake-san’s mountain faith still visit the falls for their rituals, if for shorter periods.

Shintaki drops down from a height in a concentrated jet, in front of a dark cave full of inscribed stones.  The force of the water on the bare head of the believer is stunning.  Three Heart Sutras, I was told, is the longest anyone may stand it … Every season has its own draw.  In spring the falls thunder with melt-water from the mountain. Particularly in the summertime, don’t be surprised if you encounter groups of white-clad pilgrims performing austerities. You’ll hear them chanting their incantations as you approach.  Autumn is gorgeous with the colours of the changing leaves, and in the winter, enormous ice pillars form. Visit the waterfalls at night during this time to see them lit up in their ice-palace splendor. [The Catalpa Bow]

Lakes with a more magical nature are often those with a more immediate mystique that are deeply engrained in the culture and folklore of a local people rather than a national psyche.  One instance immediately springs to mind.  The road to reach Llyn y Fan Fach may be bumpy, and the walk up to the ridge slightly steep, but what a view over this magnificent body of water, overlooked by the majestic Black Mountain, once we reach the summit of Picws Du in the Brecon Beacons! The glacial lake is the subject of a myth told in the medieval Mabinogion collection. An enchanted lady is said to have arisen from the lake and gone on to marry a local farmer, only for their marriage to be thwarted by magic and misunderstanding. The heroine fled back to her lake and the farmer had to bring up his three sons alone; the trio went on to become great healers known today as the Physicians of Myddfai …

In all truthfulness, water spirits are not the most ‘people friendly’ of entities and although encounters with them can be highly enriching, they can also be downright dangerous. A water spirit is a kind of supernatural being found in the myth and folklore of many cultures: and water is the greatest shape-shifter known in this dimension; many use its magical properties to perform miraculous effects.  In Welsh folklore the Gwragedd Annwn are beautiful female faerie who live beneath lakes and rivers and are counted among the Tylwyth Teg or Welsh faere folk.  The legend of Llyn y Fan demonstrates the beneficial elements of dealing with such creatures – providing the rules are observed!

Archetypically for late medieval narrative, while out hunting in the forests (typically sites for magical encounters in faerie stories), Raymond, Count of Poitou, meets Mélusine sitting beside a fountain.  In discovering her by a water-source, should have suggested a connection between her and Otherworld but Raymond is so taken by her beauty and her amiable manners, he falls totally in love. Mélusine agrees to marry him, but on the condition he vows not to attempt to see her on Saturday when she goes into seclusion.   

With such ambivalence about Mélusine’s background and her activities on a Saturday tensions arose, possibly suspicions of infidelity were planted in Raymond’s mind. Ultimately he was overcome with curiosity and, spying through the keyhole, witnesses his wife’s metamorphosis as her lower body took on serpentine qualities.  Another bone of contention with the Count’s kinsmen focused on the fact that she attended church infrequently, and always left before the Mass. One day he had four of his men forcibly restrain her as she rose to leave the church. Mélusine evaded the men and clasping the two youngest of her sons and in full view of the congregation, carried them up into the air and out of the church through its highest window.

The chronicler Gerald of Wales reported that Richard I of England was fond of telling this tale – according to which he was a descendant of Mélusine. The Angevin legend told that the Count had not troubled to find out about her origins but after bearing him four sons, his wife’s behaviour began to trouble him. Mélusine and her younger sons were never seen again but one of the remaining was the ancestor, it was claimed, of the later Counts of Anjou and the Plantagenet Kings of England. Referring to this story, St Bernard once said of Henry Plantagenet and his race: ‘From the devil they came, to the devil they will go’.

It’s probably a human’s capability of drowning itself in two inches of water (enough to cover the mouth and nostrils) that had led to claims of supernatural deaths around natural expanses of water – particularly when it comes to children.  In Greek mythology, the Naiads are a type of female spirit, or nymph, presiding over fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks and other bodies of fresh water.  The water nymph, associated with particular springs, was known all through Europe in places with no direct connection with Greece and surviving in the Celtic wells of northwest Europe that have since been rededicated to saints.

This is an extract from the limited title currently in preparation – Inner Court Witchcraft – by Melusine Draco as a companion volume to Round About the Cauldron Go … by Phillip Wright and Carrie West.