How to Survive (and Enjoy) the Mid-Winter Festival
With all the doom, gloom and despondency surrounding the Christmas planning for this year, it might be the perfect time to take a leaf out of the dining table and start preparing a pared-down pagan Yule. Whether ‘bubbling’ or ‘cocooning’, there’s no reason to let the ‘virus’ stop us from enjoying ourselves and observing the festival as one of celebration and good hope. In order to run smoothly, our pagan Mid-Winter Festival/Yule needs to be planned well in advance and not be spoiled by any last-minute disasters. A bit of organisation goes a long way so start by making lists to cover all aspects of the festivities – guests, gifts and gormandising.
If, on the other hand, we’ve decided to spend the Mid-Winter Festival/Yule alone, then the same rules still apply. It can be rather daunting to actually plan for a solitary Yule, but since the whole focus of the holiday is usually getting together with those close to you – and if those people can’t be around this year – then the exercise may seem pointless. My advice is stock up with all your favourite treats, a good selection of DVD boxed sets, and treat yourself to a disgustingly expensive Yule gift – mine for this year is a vintage Aquascutum duffel coat!
The solitary life-style is amplified at this time of year and all the hype that is geared around spending time with family often creates the impression that if we’re not part of the glamour then we’re nothing but a sad git! There’s a vast difference, however, between being alone and being lonely. And although outsiders might think it a bit strange, the company of a cat or dog means that there’s someone in the home to talk to and snuggle up with, and discuss what we’re going to watch on telly – just as we’ve done throughout the lockdowns.
Strangely enough, it is Christianity itself that has made a mockery of ‘Christmas’ and turned it into the commercial free-for-all we know today. What is sad, is that a large number of pagans in rejecting the whole concept of Christmas are, in fact, rejecting the ancestral concept of Yule. So, lets us reclaim the Mid-Winter Festival with all its ‘warmth, light and revelry’ and celebrate it in time-honoured fashion without the commercial overtones – even if we have to do it alone this year.
“As per usual and in great style, Mélusine Draco presents a wealth of information about this historically proven pagan festival. Whichever way the reader chooses to celebrate…whether it’s a traditional family Christmas or a traditional Yule in the company of pagan friends or as a solitary – there is something for everyone. From a complete festival calendar with some simple rites and symbolism, to carol lyrics, recipes, gift ideas and feasting to the ‘art of using up’ and festive games; everything Yuletide is covered. And with generous doses of light-hearted good cheer and a sprinkling of dark humour, the author strikes a balance that is both useful, informative and entertaining. A charming little book.” Sheena Cundy, Witch Lit author The Madness and the Magic
“Have a Cool Yule is a lovely guide on how to truly enjoy the festive season in the depths of winter, whether you call it Christmas, the Winter Solstice, Yule or any other name. In the pages of this book you will fi nd time-honoured traditions, recipes and sensible advice on how to avoid the worst of the commercialism and make the occasion what you want it to be.” Lucya Starza, author of Pagan Portals – Candle Magic
Pagan Portals: Have a Cool Yule by Melusine Draco and published by Moon Books : ISBN 978 1 78535 711 4 : UK£6.99 : US$10.95 : 82 pages
These were two of Ignotus Press’s best-selling titles back in the day and now that our own Coven is going back to its sabbatic roots, these memories are even more relevant. We will, of course, remain a teaching coven on a newcomer’s level because it’s basically a good introduction to traditional British Old Craft but behind the scenes, things will be changing. After years of talking about it, we have recently published a Coven of the Scales grimoire for our Elders but TheCoarse WitchcraftTrilogy is the nearest outsiders are going to get to how an Old Craft coven works. The two genuine covens were/are uncomfortably similar in as much as things go wrong, the Magister’s irascible , the Dame long-suffering and the members come from all walks of life.
Coarse witchcraft, by definition, is a spoof on bad Craft practice, parodying clichés, every kind of misplaced dramatic performance and Circle disaster. These three books, each with its own mix of disaster and hilarity, take their name from journalist Michael Green’s coarse acting/rugby treatment, resulting in a chaotic catalogue in which everything that can go wrong in the Circle does so. But as esoteric author and long-time chum, Alan Richardson, said of the book: ‘Coarse Witchcraft made me laugh out loud in morethan a few places. In fact, I think it is the first book of its kind; althoughit pokes fun at modern excesses and can laugh at itself, it still managesto teach the real stuff at a very high level.’
It’s been said that Coarse Witchcraft is like Marmite – you either love it or hate it. And many of those who love it have taken to CoS teaching like the proverbial familiar to the broomstick! No … we don’t suffer fools gladly but we do go out of our way to help genuine seekers who demonstrate an aptitude for Old Craft ways. Yes … the Tradition is idiosyncratic but then we do have a foot in the dim and distant past and do notabandon ancient customs in favour of more contemporary observances. Because we understands that contact with these old energies may be established more completely through customs that are so ancient that they have had time to firmly entrench themselves in the vast storehouse of the ancestral subconsciousness.
“I think the Coarse Witchcraft Trilogy should be compulsory reading for anyone wishing to study Old Craft,” said our Dame with a grin. “The stories and the characters are real with very little embellishment but it does give a valuable insight into an Old Craft mindset.” MD
The Coarse Witchcraft Trilogy by Rupert Percy and Gabrielle Sidonie. Introduced by Melusine Draco and published by Moon Books : ISBN 978 1 78279 285 7 : UK£10.99/US$18.95 : 254 pages
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. The idea came from those ‘Ladybird’ books we had as kids that were often responsible for triggering and interest in all manner of subjects in later life.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 wordageand regurgitated textborrowed from other publications.
The first five books in the series are now ‘works in progress’ and Offering to the Gods should be available early in the New Year. Each title devotes itself to a particular Craft method or technique that the witch feels they wish to explore in more depth as part of their on-going studies. In order of publication, the first five titles are:
None of us can begin to imagine what it would be like to discover that our dog’s been stolen; but neither can we imagine the terror and fear that the dog must experience on discovering that it’s been removed from its familiar people and surroundings. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t consider dog theft a heinous crime but to those who are victims (human and canine) perhaps we cannot think of a punishment severe enough – because for dog people – dogs are our family. This is where we can resort to a Higher Law – the power of the curse – because we don’t have to have a magical interest/aptitude to be able to throw a curse … all we have to have is hate and passion.
The dog thieves are possibly overlapping in their territories and if all those who have had your beloved pets stolen, then the power of the curse is compounded on these individuals. In this instance, we are talking about the reality of the power of collective ‘prayer’, which cannot be underestimated because there is no doubt as to the magnitude of its effect. This curse is a prayer of a different kind.
It is called The Gage, which is a pledge; something thrown down as in a challenge, from the poem of that name by Walter de la Mare, and demonstrates the power of the words adapted from of a verse from the poemthat offers an example of an extremely powerful curse that could be used in the event of someone stealing any pet dog . For example:
O mark me well!
For what my hound befell
You shall pay twenty-fold,
For every tooth
Of his, i’sooth,
Your life in pawn I’ll hold.
The effective placing of this curse requires a personal item belonging to the stolen dog (i.e. fur, tooth, bone, saliva, etc.,) and a photograph. Here we are bringing down a curse that is ‘twenty times’ the number of teeth in the dog’s mouth, which in an average healthy adult is around 42. This means that the sender must weigh in the balance whether the punishment fits the crime; after all, it would be rather extreme if someone had merely given your dog a clout for attempting to ravish their prize-winning bitch!
Cursing, however, is a question of personal responsibility and/or morality, but once thrown it cannot be retracted or negated. That said, the theft of any dog and removing it from its home environment for financial gain, I would see the curse to be justifiable if the thieves lose their most priceless possession(s) as a result. For this particular curse it is necessary to produce a small pouch containing the fur and photograph of the dog to be held tightly while reciting the above curse – and keep it safe. And if everyone whose dog has been stolen were to throw this curse, the results will be compounded on the heads of the guilty parties according to Higher Law.
Remember that even the mildest ‘loss’ magnified 20 x 42 is going to have some serious repercussions.
Taken from Shaman Pathways: Aubrey’s Dog – Power Animals in Traditional Witchcraft by Melusine Draco and published by Moon Books. ISBM 076 1 78099 724 7 : UK£4.99/US$9.95 : pages 84.
Finally, the long-awaited Round About the Cauldron Go … is almost ready to go to print as a limited edition. Written by Philip Wright and Carrie West, with lots of input from the Elders of CoS, the book is aimed at those who have completed the Arcanum foundation course, and have asked for ideas as to how they should celebrate the Sabbats throughout the year. Round About the Cauldron Go … shows them exactly that. All of the workings apply whether the Coven as a whole is undertaking them or the witch as a solitary practitioner. They are easy to adapt for those working alone and will ensure that there is a consistency of approach across the entire Coven.
Since these workings are ONLY for use by Coven of the Scales, this book is being made available as a limited edition to those Coven members who have shown a genuine aptitude for Old Craft and have also shown an active progression with Craft itself. This is the Grimoire of Coven of the Scales, setting down our practices for the benefit of those needing to know them now and in the future. Its contents must not be divulged to others under any circumstances and any member found to have shared its contents may face banishment from the Coven!
The complete Temple House Archive series will be available on Kindle e-books at a special price of UK£0.99/US$0.95 between 7-14th October – House of Strange Gods; Realm of Shadow; Hour Betwixt Dog & Wolf and The Thirteenth Sign.
The Temple House was founded in 1586 in England during the reign of Elizabeth I as an off-shoot of Sir Francis Walsingham’s recently created intelligence service, inaugurated to investigate the growing popularity of esoteric learning that was occupying the interests of the Elizabethan intelligentsia. For this he recruited the descendants of the Knights Templar who had remained in England following the destruction of their Order. Drawing on a veritable mine of esoteric knowledge and experience of international intrigue, the Temple House was established to combat ‘evil forces’ of a human or supernatural agency, and those who would use occult power for destructive purposes. The current members of the Temple House, or ‘the Nine’ as they are called in memory of the nine founder members of the original Knights Templar, are all specialists and magical practitioners in the diverse fields of occultism and its relevant histories. For more details see http://www.facebook.com/TempleHouseArchive or order paperbacks direct from https://www.feedaread.com/books/House-of-Strange-Gods-9781785106392.
“A brilliant read. Love the writing. A real chiller-thriller. The author has all the skills needed to write a cracking good novel. She also has a vast occult knowledge that really shows and writes on the subject with ease. As usual with Melusine there is a subtle humorous element running through that works really well. Best of all there is a volume two underway. I think this would make a great TV series.” Maria Moloney, Axis Mundi Books
“A cracking read. An excellent story, the characters are three dimensional, the dialogue reads naturally and the pacing is fine. There is tension and plenty of conflict as well as some nice touches of humour. There is also a sense of truth that only someone who is familiar with the occult can provide in this genre.” Krystina Kellingley, Cosmic Egg Books
“A brilliant read and a walk into the world of the occult that is both fascinating and thrilling. Loved the historical undertones and the work of the ‘Nine’. Kept me gripped throughout. Can’t wait for number two!” Sarah-Beth Watkins : Bookworms
Many of the woods that were once pollarded or coppiced are extremely ancient. Trackways across the marshy areas of Somerset were built of poles that have been identified as coppiced alder, ash, holly and hazel dating from 2,500BC. Trees of many different kinds, with oak probably dominant, indicate old woodland. All the trees are native though sycamore may have been introduced at a much later date. Trees of one kind (such as oak or beech) growing close together with tall trunks, perhaps planted in rows, indicates high forest plantation more than 100 years old.
If the woodland is old it was once either coppiced or grazed. If the woods were grazed (ie. used as wood-pasture) the trees would have been pollarded, so look for old pollards and a lack of variety in ground plants as clues to old wood-pasture. Look to see if there is nothing but grass under the trees; this suggests that grazing continues. Wood-pasture is a dead tradition but some old northern coppice woods are now used for sheltering and grazing sheep.
Look for signs of previous coppicing: perhaps there are ‘many-trunked trees’ growing from the site of the old coppice stools. The main point is that a wood that was being coppiced 100 years ago is likely to be an old wood. The small-leaved lime tree is another good indicator, while the Midland hawthorn shows that the old coppiced area has never been anything but woodland.
When visiting a wood you should look for signs, particularly in the shapes of the trees, that tell of the history of the wood and what it has been used for in the past. Pollarding refers to trees that have been cut to produce successive crops of wood at a height of between 6-15 feet above the ground so that grazing animals cannot reach the young shoots. Pollarding is carried out on wood-pasture and hedgerows rather than on trees in the woods.
From an historical perspective, pollarding allowed livestock to graze the common land of the parish, which often included woodland. As a result, this type of wood-pasture developed its own appearance. It has a bare, grassy floor (for the animals destroyed the spring flowers and undergrowth) and the trees were well spaced out because the livestock also ate many of the new saplings. Supplies of poles could still be obtained by cropping the branches of the trees at head height and his became known as ‘pollarding’ from the word meaning head.
Old pollarded trees can still be seen today and although the technique has all but died out, it has been well documented since Anglo-Saxon times. Apart from wood-pasture, many old pollards can be found in hedges, in farmland as boundary markers, or along water-courses (pollarded willow or poplars).
The word coppice comes from the French word couper, meaning to cut. When young trees are cut back to the ground they quickly sprout a head of shoots which grow about six feet high in a year and then begin to thicken. The resulting tree is called a coppice.
After about seven to fifteen years the shoot of the coppice used to be cut to provide a supply of poles, staves and brushwood. Scattered throughout the coppices were the standard trees that had been allowed to grow unhindered until they reached an age of about 70-150 years when they were felled for timber.
The most obvious signs of past coppicing is the presence of many trunked trees growing on the site of old coppiced stumps. It was important in past times to keep livestock out since they would destroy the young shoots and so the wood was often surrounded by a ditch with a large bank inside, which was often fenced. The remains of the bank and ditch can still be seen in places.
Another clue to woods that were once coppiced is the abundance of spring flowers. The regular cutting of the coppices allowed plenty of light to reach the woodland floor, and this encouraged the growth of the plants. Woodland flowers are slow to spread and so their presence in large numbers is an excellent indication that the wood is ancient and was once coppiced.
Wild flowers provide the woods with some of their most attractive features. Because many have adapted naturally to flower before the leaves develop in the shrub and canopy layers, they are regarded as the harbingers of spring. No doubt to our primitive ancestors this re-awakening of the woodland contributed to the mystical significance of the many rites and rituals associated with spring.
An indication of an old wood is a rich variety of flowers, particularly if bluebells, snowdrops, wood anemones, primroses, yellow archangel and early purple orchids are present. Bluebells spread very slowly on heavy clay soils, so a carpet of them under trees could be the clue to old woodland. Dog’s mercury may seem to be a common woodland plant yet it is rarely found in recently planted woods – that is, woodland that has formed in the last 100 years – and so is also a good indicator of old woodland.
The presence of these particular flowers in a hedge bottom today are all good indicators that it originated as part of a wood since these species spread very slowly and do not readily colonise hedgerows.
It’s not just the woods that can be dated from the variety and number of different species. British hedgerows have their own history and this is also chronicled by certain tell-tale signs. Old hedgerows were probably originally planted to mark ancient boundaries to estate and parishes, for example. The majority, however, were planted in the 18th and 19th centuries to enclose patches of land in order to establish ownership or control livestock.
Hawthorn is the most common tree to be found in the hedgerow, although many include blackthorn and holly. Other species arrive as seeds – dog rose and ash soon appear while others like hazel and field maple are slow to colonise. A hedge planted as pure hawthorn slowly acquires additional species as it gets older and scientific studies of the species diversity of hedgerows in relation to their age (where this can be reasonably accurately dated from historical records) have shown that there is more or less a direct relationship between the number of species established in a hedge and its age.
As a general rule one new species colonises the hedge every 100 years, so that a two-species hedge could be 200 years old, and a ten-species hedge 1000 years old.
Pagan Portals: The Inner-City Path: A Gleaning of the Seasons
A Simple Guide to Well-Being and Awareness
The (Inner-City) Path: A Gleaning of the Seasons 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 wefeel the freshness of the streams as per Longfellow’s ‘Prelude’ …
Generally speaking, witches and pagans come in all shapes and sizes from baby-boomers to millennials and each one is a product of their own generation, complete with all its fads, quirks, foibles and urban myths. By and large, for an older witch, a sense of well-being and awareness focuses on a need for inner harmony and being at peace with what they’ve achieved thus far in life, while looking forward to whatever challenges the future throws at them. For the younger variety, their sense of well-being and awareness is often preaching the gospel via social media (in all its many forms and contradictions) that has frequently made them appear less tolerant, more judgemental, and possibly a tad too obsessed with bodily functions. We are all a product of our Age … all as different as Nature intended … even town and city dwellers may have unconscious pagan leanings.
Nevertheless, we also know that Mother Nature is neither 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, colorful flowers, and sinuous woody shapes. In most depictions she is meditative, embodying the spirit of the mythological ‘mother’ in Nature. In reality, humankind and nature can be said to be in conflict, since Nature is often seen by humans as natural resources to be exploited; while Nature will wipe out hundreds of humans with a shrug of the shoulder.
Getting back to Nature requires stripping away the anthropomorphism that causes us to interpret non-human things in terms of human characteristics. Derived from the Greek anthropos (meaning ‘human’) and morphe (‘form’), the term was first used to refer to the attribution of human physical or mental features to deities. According to Britannica, by the mid-19th century it had acquired the second, broader meaning of a phenomenon occurring not only in religion but in all areas of human thought and action, including daily life, the arts, and even sciences. Anthropomorphism may occur consciously or unconsciously and most scholars since the time of the English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) have agreed that although the tendency to anthropomorphise hinders the understanding of the world, it is deep-seated and persistent. But is it so wrong to consider all living, growing things as sentient beings?
The Path we regularly take when out for a daily walk has its own welcoming ambiance and if we feel as though we’re being swamped with negative emotions, we know it can be helpful to walk them off. In fact, a recent British health study showed that simply walking in green spaces induces a gentle state of meditation. Most of us live in urban areas and spend far less time outside in green, natural spaces than people did several generations ago but even a lunchtime stroll in the park may soothe the mind and, in the process, change the workings of our brain in ways that improve our mental health. Whatever the weather, walking in Nature is not only good for our heart and fitness levels, but according to numerous studies it has measurable mental benefits and may also reduce the risk of depression. In addition to promoting mental health, nature group walks also ‘appear to mitigate the effects of stressful life events on perceived stress and negative affects while synergizing with physical activity to improve positive affects and mental wellbeing’, the researchers wrote in the Researchgate study abstract.
‘Wellness’ entered the pagan lexicon with the advent of Mind, Body & Spirit magazine publishing in the 1980s when it was generally used to mean ‘a state beyond the absence of illness’ and aimed at promoting a sense of well-being. It quickly became an umbrella term for pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo and alternative health movements – becoming the defining spirit or mood of the 2000s as reflected by the ideas and beliefs of the time. All of which promoted journalist Hadley Freeman to write in the Guardian as early as 2015: ‘Pseudoscience and strawberries: ‘wellness’ gurus should carry a health warning’. It’s easy to mock wellness bloggers and their fattening apples, but their uneducated bletherings about food and health are, at best, irresponsible and, at heart, immoral. They’re right: what we eat is important, which is why it’s important that people with qualifications beyond an Instagram account educate us about it.
Nevertheless, a considerable amount of traditional witchcraft/ paganism revolves around natural folk-cures and herbal remedies, with much of it having been handed down by grandparents and elderly neighbours in rural communities. Foraging was part of growing up and knowing when and where in the country calendar certain delicacies could be found; and who, as a rural child experienced the bliss of gorging themselves on wild, woodland strawberries, has ever forgotten that exquisite taste? Or returning home with fingers and mouths stained purple from picking blackberries by the bushel as part of a school-dinners project?
‘Awareness’ is an even more recent innovation commonly used in reference to public knowledge or understanding of social or political issues. It is synonymous with public involvement and advocacy in support of certain causes or movements; or concern about and a well-informed interest in a particular situation or development. Awareness in the spiritual sense is harder to describe in intellectual terms but on a basic level it can refer to a mental state achieved by focusing our awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting our feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations … Awareness can mean different things and the first steps we can take on the pagan path is to become aware of the everyday world of Nature that surrounds us … even in the city’s throng …
Several decades ago, it was agreed that if it was to survive, witchcraft had to move with the times and although there was a romantic appeal in returning to the Old Ways, it was not always practical. In the years since the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951, the Craft has evolved in many separate ways and when something evolves, it changes, or develops over time and much can be lost in the process: like our taste in music and literature, which transforms as we get older, and generally changes from one generation to the next. And yet … some things never change.
American photographer Frances F. Denny attempted to explore the figure of the contemporary witch beyond the cultural chestnuts that have shrouded and obscured it for Elle magazine: The muddled stereotypes that surround witches nowadays are, in the end, not so very different from those used to define that perennial problem: woman. Her subjects are of diverse age, social class, and ethnicity, and practice a range of rituals, often drawing on ‘mysticism, engagement with the occult, politically oriented activism, polytheism, ritualized ‘spellwork’ and plant-based healing.
Denny asked the women she photographed for the series to wear an outfit or bring along an item that they felt would represent their practice and identity as witches, and as a result: ‘…some of the portraits do answer more readily to our expectations of what a witch might look like. They brandish mysterious implements – a crystal ball, a bow and arrow, a wooden staff; one woman reclines, entwined with a snake – and most are dressed in black. There was an immense theatricality…’
Nevertheless, the ‘witch’ has firmly entered the 21st-century zeitgeist as a figure akin to a synergetic composite of Burne-Jones in the terminal 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. All of which appears to be an out-and-out attempt to make a statement and stand out from the crowd when our forebears would have done everything in their power to blend in with their neighbours! But it’s not always like that … since many traditional witches have learned the art of blending in.
Within esoteric circles the term ‘path’ is often used to refer to the spiritual journey that many of us take as part of our esoteric learning. In this book The Path is a series of gentle mental exercises to limber up the ‘spiritual vagabond’ part of our makeup before we embark on a much more challenging adventure as we metamorphose from embryonic pagan to fully-fledged witch. It helps if we get into a mind-set that plays a critical role in how we cope with life’s new challenges regardless of age or background and imbues us with a hunger for learning about the natural world around us. A pagan mindset is also about living up to our possible potential and who knows how far we can go if we set our mind to it – believing that the effort that goes into learning and deepening our understanding is well worth all the toil and trouble as we chart our way through the seasons.
For example: most of us overlook a bountiful food supply, one that satisfies us personally and, in a very small way, may benefit us financially: the wild larder. We have become so out of touch with food that we no longer recognize wild ingredients as something we can utilize for sheer enjoyment. Foraging puts us back in touch with nature and introduces us to new tastes we can use creatively. Gathering wild leaves and fruits is not the sole preserve of the country dweller as even a touch of wild garlic can enhance urban cooking.
It now becomes obvious why ‘gleaning’ was chosen as part of the title for The (Inner-City) Path: A Gleaning of the Seasons because it means to collect information in small amounts and often with difficulty. The conditions of farm workers in the 1890s made gleaning essential because it was the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested, or on fields where it was not economically profitable to harvest. In other words, we are picking up bits and pieces of information to add to our meager store of knowledge in order to supplement our life-style and its modern links with the natural world. And A Simple Guide to Well-Being & Awareness … well, as Dryden wrote: ‘what herbs and Simples grow/ In fields and forests,/ all their powers I know’ when referring to using a single herb or plant in a medicinal way.
And it is at this point we step out onto The Path … and a return to a pagan sense of well-being and awareness … and a feeling of wonder in everyday life.
Pagan Portals: The (Inner-City) Path by Melusine Draco is published by Moon Books ISBN 978 1 78904 464 5 : 78-pages : UK£6.99/US$10.95. Available in paperback and e-book format http://www.moon-books.net
It was Robert Cochrane who originally coined those now famous words:
“If one who claims to be a Witch can perform the tasks of Witchcraft, i.e. summon the spirits and they come, can divine with rod, fingers and birds. If they can also claim the right to the omens and have them; have the power to call, heal and curse and above all, can tell the maze and cross the Lethe, then you have a witch.”
Divination is what I would refer to as the practical element of Craft magic, and we don’t even have to be witches to be able to read the portents. But it helps!
Looking into the future is a very ancient practice. As we saw in the chapter ‘Developing the ‘Art of Seeing’ in Traditional Witchcraft for Urban Living, thousands of recorded British customs and superstitions all have their roots in fortune-telling spells and charms, and they are as fashionable today as they were way back when. In fact, it’s been said that divination was as commonplace in the past as satellite communication is today: it was part of everyday life for everyone from king to commoner. It utilised all manner of techniques and methods from a simple nut placed on the fire grate to the complicated reading of the Roman auspices.
For example a few of these techniques include:
Aeromancy: Divination using the formation of clouds and other patterns in the skies.
Botanomancy: Divination through plant life; may include the burning of plants and foretelling future events through the ashes or smoke.
Crystallomancy: An ancient form of casting lots using small stones. Or crystalomancy: Divination by studying a crystal ball.
Daphnomancy: Using the smoke of burning branches of the laurel tree to answer questions and forecast upcoming events.
Enoptromancy: An ancient method using a shiny surface placed in water.
Felidomancy: Divination through the observation of felines, including domestic and wild cats.
Geomancy: An ancient system interpreting the patterns and shapes or events found in nature.
Halomancy: Foretelling by interpreting the formation of the crystals when salt is poured to the ground.
Ichthyomancy: Observing the behaviour of fish both in and out of the water.
Jungism: The understanding of mythic symbolism as it relates to the human subconciousness.
Kephalonomancy: Ancient method of pouring lighted carbon on the skull of a goat or donkey to determine guilt or innocence.
Lampadomancy: Divination through the observation of flames from a candle or flaming torch.
Metopomancy: Divination and character analysis by studying the lines on a person’s forehead.
Necromancy: Contacting the spirits of the dead to interpret omens and forecast future events.
Oinomancy: An ancient Roman practice of interpretation through the study and evaluation of the colour, consistency and taste of wine.
Psephomancy: Divination by selecting at random small stones from a pile.
Qabbala: A blend of powerful divinely-inspired divination and mysticism.
Rune Stones: A series of mystic symbols thrown or selected to determine the future.
Scrying: Divination by interpreting the play of light on a shiny object or surface.
Tephramancy: Interpreting the ashes of a combustible object.
Uromancy: Divination using urine.
Visualisation: A controlled level of consciousness during which the seeker can divine answers to questions.
Wort-Lore: The understanding of the appropriate herbs to use to aid divination.
Xylomancy: Using the arrangement of dried sticks to predict the future.
Ying-Yang: Describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may interrelate to one another and influence future events.
Zoanthropy: Divination by observing and interpreting the flames of three lighted candles placed in a triangular position.
A deep-rooted belief in divination has existed throughout the ages, among both the uncivilized and the most civilized of cultures, as the desire to know the future continually gave rise to some weird and wonderful ways of peering into it. The Egyptians used dreams [i.e temple sleep] to divine the will of the gods; the Druids used many different forms of divination, as did the Hebrews. Although augury was first implemented by the Chaldeans, the Greeks became addicted to it; and among the Romans no important action of State was undertaken without the advice of the augers and their pre-occupation with raw liver!
Both oracles and seers in ancient Greece practiced divination. Oracles were the conduits for the gods on earth; their prophecies were understood to be the will of the gods verbatim and usually communicated to rulers and prominent persons. Seers were interpreters of signs provided by the gods via natural signs and were more numerous than the oracles being highly valued by all Greeks, not just those with the where with all to travel to Delphi or other such sites, where pythonesses perched on stools, inhaling noxious fumes. As it does today, the ancient Greeks made use of various techniques of divinatory practice: either direct or indirect, and, either spontaneous, or artificial.
Direct divination is where and when a seeker might experience divination by way of dreaming and dreams or by way of a temporary experience of madness, or phrensy (frenzy), all of these conditions being a state from which an inspired recognition of truth is attained. A necessary condition is that the seeker has made an effort to produce a mental or physical state which encourages a flash of insight. These historically attested efforts included sleeping in conditions where-by dreams might be more likely to occur, inhaling certain vapour, the chewing of leaves, drinking of blood, etc.
Under these conditions the seeker may gain the power of prophecy (albeit temporary) that was associated with caves and grottoes within Greek divination, and the Nymphs and Pan who were associated with caves often bestowed the gift of prophesy. Pan was able to dwell within people, a condition known as panolepsy, that causes inspirational abilities relating to divination or prophecy. A degree of possession of an individual by a nymph is known as nympholepsy, meaning ‘caught by nymphs’ … a term we would use today as someone ‘being fairy led’.
Indirect divination where-by a seeker observes natural conditions and phenomenon such as ‘sortilege’, and chance encounters with the animal kingdom. This consists of the casting of lots, or sortes, whether with sticks, stones, bones, beans, coins, or some other item and often interpreted by a third party. Modern playing cards and board games are believed to have been developed from this type of divination, whereby dice or counters are cast in order to predict the future.
But not all divinatory methods were well-received. As early as 692 the Quinisext Council, also known as the ‘Council in Trullo’ in the Eastern Orthodox Church, passed canons to eliminate paganism and the practice of divination, but it continued to be popular well into the Middle Ages despite being frequently banned by the Church. In fact the seven artes magicae or artes prohibitae, i.e. those methods of divination prohibited by canon law (as expounded by Johannes Hartlieb in 1456), were:
It has been suggested that the division between the four ‘elemental’ disciplines (i.e. geomancy (Earth), hydromancy (Water), aeromancy (Air) and pyromancy (Fire) appears to be a contrivance of the time, but traditional forms such as chiromancy was the divination from a subject’s palms as practiced by the Romany (at the time recently arrived in Europe), and scapulimancy, the divination from animal bones, in particular shoulder blades as practiced in peasant superstition. By contrast, nigromancy came from scholarly ‘high magic’ derived from High Medieval grimoires such as the Picatrix or the Liber Rasielis and was classed as ‘black magic’ and demonology, by the vernacular etymology, from necromancy.
In the constitution of 1572 and public regulations of 1661 of Kur-Saxony, capital punishment was used on those predicting the future and laws forbidding divinatory practice continue to this day in some parts of the world. Nevertheless, the belief in ‘fortune-telling’ continued to be looked upon as a popular pastime for finding a husband or predicting a favourable outcome with regards to health, wealth and happiness. Even the popular Victorian compilations of superstitions were given a Christian spin to weed out anything that wasn’t considered ‘nice’ or smacked too much of paganism, but the Folklore Society’s extensive archive enables serious researchers to trace these old divinatory practices back to their roots.
Divination, however, is only a small part of a witch’s stock in trade and although a very basic introduction to the subject can be learned from books, proficiency will only come through vigorous practice. This proficiency comes through the discovery of certain secret matters by a great variety of means, – correspondences, signs and occult techniques – and before a witch can perform any of these operations with any degree of success, we need to develop the ‘art of seeing’ and the ability to ‘divine with rod, fingers and birds’
Very early in his studies one student had grasped the fact that the animal world helps us to connect to this new level of being, particularly through birds, which have long been recognised as an effective means of divination. Once he understood the principles behind the phenomena, he began to find that he was beginning to ‘see’ more. How many people, for instance, will even notice the mice on the Underground … but he’d watched them and interpreted their behaviour. How they would always disappear long before the rumble of the train was discernable to human awareness. Once we get into the habit of watching the animal world, we will always have something around us to warn when that ‘train’ is coming!
The most remarkable thing about divination, of course, is its continued success. And a large number of people who turn to professional readers are impressed by the amazing details ‘coming through’ from their past – but this isn’t what divination is about. ‘Cold reading’ is a set of techniques used by mentalists, psychics, fortune-tellers, mediums and illusionists to imply that the reader knows much more about the person than the reader actually does.
There are dozens of books on the subject that reveal how, without prior knowledge, a practiced cold-reader can quickly obtain a great deal of information by analyzing the person’s body language, ago, clothing or fashion, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, etc. Cold readings commonly employ high-probability guesses, quickly picking up on signals as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, then emphasizing and reinforcing chance connections and quickly moving on from missed guesses. Even the police and military use the technique during interrogation sessions …
The witch, however, is not so much concerned with the past as with the present and more particularly the future. Of course, our past actions affect the way we view the future but if we ignore the warnings that divination brings concerning the present, we will be doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. We must also remember that regardless of whatever method is used to predict the future those results are not cast in stone! Divination reveals the future as relating to the past and the present, and what will happen if the warnings are not heeded in order to change things before they go wrong. The answer is also subjective to where an individual is standing at the precise moment in time when they pose the question. We’re back to the saying: “You can’t change anything but yourself, but in changing yourself, everything changes around you.” So if you don’t like what the results of the reading is telling you … do something about it before it’s too late!
As witches we are responsible for our own destiny and a proficiency in our own chosen system of divining gives us a powerful advantage.Experienced practitioners usually prefer to use a single form of divination, and while some methods may prove to be more efficient than others, and some diviners may be more accurate than their fellows, it is traditionally part of a witch’s natural ability to be able to divine by ‘rod, fingers and birds’, as the saying goes. After years of practice with any particular system, we find that we can interpret the signs without even having to think about it – it’s like receiving a message from an old friend.
The results we get from our endeavours are signs of opportunities to be taken, dangers to be avoided, or impending news of change. Here the witch also interacts with Nature to keep close watch on any unusual activities or occurrences that might have any effect on themselves, or those close to them. This is another reason why it is essential for even the most urban of witches to be well-versed in natural lore as well as magical lore. It pays to understand the local wildlife, otherwise we might not see that unusual ‘something’ in an animal’s or bird’s normal behaviour patterns.
Our native flora and fauna are linked to our magical subconsciousness and, if we have required any form of divinatory methods to guide us through the subsequent stages of our love life or career, we must be receptive to those responses. For those with a working understanding in the language of magical correspondences, it is easy to grasp how natural the reading of the symbols becomes, and how easy and obvious (in most instances) is the interpretation. For the beginner, however, accept that the answers are not going to appear suddenly in chapter and verse in a book on fortune telling. Divination is more subtle and, more often than not for the inexperienced, irritatingly obtuse!
Reading for others is a common moral and ethical dilemma that is often raised on internet sites and personally I always refuse point blank to indulge in the practice. That has not always been the case. There used to be an unwritten ethic whereby a reader seeing something really nasty in the future was duty bound not to reveal what they had seen lurking in the woodshed. And in the words of that old Leonard Cohen song … “I’ve seen the future, brother, it is murder!” I decided it was unreasonable for me to carry the burden of knowledge for strangers and waiting for the other boot to drop, and that has remained my personal code to the present day … so don’t ask.
If you do wish to read for others then remember not to use your own ‘tools’ for outsider’s readings as these will become contaminated through use. Keep your own private equipment under lock and key and have a completely different set for public readings – even this should be ritually cleansed after use as each reading will leave a psychic residue behind and contaminate the next person’s reading.
On the legal front, the whole ball-game changed in 2008 when the Fraudulent Mediums Act (which replaced the 1735 Witchcraft Act) was replaced by the new Consumer Protection Regulations. Now there’s a whole list of disclaimers that must be added to the fortune-teller’s spiel if they are to avoid an avalanche of writs from disgruntled customers. The reason behind the introduction of the new law was because very little in the multi-million-pound psychic industry in Britain is for free, and anyone charging or accepting ‘gifts’ in exchange for a service is bound by the new regulations. A legal specialist wryly observed: “Now there is no difference in law between a psychic and a double-glazing salesman.”
Let’s face it, there are ‘professional’ fees charged for all manner of types of divination, including Tarot, psychic readings and clairvoyance – just take a look at the number of classified advertisements in any of the MB&S magazines. According to Office of Fair Trading research, which provided the basis for the new changes, psychic mailings are estimated to have cost gullible Britons £40m in 2006-07, while psychic services via telephone, online and satellite TV keep the tills ringing in the psychics’ favour.
In the USA the legal status of spiritualists, psychics, fortune-tellers and healers has often been a precarious one, and explains why many pagans adopted the title of Reverend as this kept them within the boundaries of the law. As one web-post explained: “If one goes to psychic fairs, etc., you will notice that virtually all readers are Reverend ‘So and So’ with another title attached. If you are using Tarot or scrying for a church or religious purpose [i.e counselling], and not for the purpose of fortune-telling – you are legal.” So there you have it … if you are a professional diviner and charge a fee for your services, you might be falling foul of the Office of Fair Trading.
From a purely personal point of view, my abilities when it comes to divination have always been limited, I have to confess. I regularly use cartomancy (i.e. Crowley’s Thoth Tarot) and the pendulum for personal divinatory purposes – and with a great deal of success I might add – but tend to rely more on the messages from the natural world on a daily basis. I have the most amazing crystal ball collection but generally use them for meditational work by holding the appropriate sphere in the palm of the hand – one colour for each sephiroth of the Qabalah – rather than prediction. So … I’m okay with fingers (cleidomancy) and birds (alectryomancy) but the rod (rhabdomancy) I really have to work at to get any kind of results …
Pagan Portals DIVINATION: By Rod, Birds and Fingers by Melusine Draco is published by Moon Books (www.moon-books.net) ISBN 9 978 1 78535 858 6 : UK£6.99/US$10.95 : 82 pages. Available in paperback and e-book format
We know Keats’ ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ has become a cliché but it is still the most evocative description of an English autumn and my favourite time of the year.
Not surprisingly, the Magister is ‘Master of Ceremonies’ for this fire festival of the Harvest Home and we immediately felt the need to say that it is important to stand well back from the rites and look at it in all its richest symbolism. Many students struggle without the attribution of human traits,emotions, or intentions to these gods, although it is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology to ascribe human form or attributes to a deity. During the dark time the goddess ‘sleeps’ or goes into hibernation like much of the flora and fauna in the natural world. The god ‘keeps watch’ and the pair only interact again at the time when the bright and dark tides are equally balanced at the Vernal Equinoxes.
The Autumnal Equinox is also a time of transition. It is the time of the harvest and plenty, when the work is finished and the last stook of corn has been cut and stored in the barn to be ploughed back into the ground in the spring. So while it is a ritual of thanksgiving, it is also an important rite of passage – regeneration and renewal – the symbol of which is over-wintered in the barn or corner of the kitchen. To trace our indigenous customs back as far as possible, we can turn to T F Thistleton Dyer’s Folk-lore of Shakespeare, which tells us that ‘the ceremonies which graced the in-gathering of the harvest in bygone times have gradually disappeared, and at the present day  only remnants of the old usages which once prevailed are still preserved’.
‘Shakespeare, who chronicled so many of our old customs, and seems to have had a special delight in illustrating his writings with these characteristics of our social life, had given several interesting allusions to the observances which in his day graced the harvest field … an allusion to the ‘Hock Cart’ of the old harvest-home. This was the cart which carried the last corn away from the harvest field; and which was generally profusely decorated and accompanied by music, old and young shouting at the top of their voices a doggerel after the following fashion:-
We have ploughed, we have sowed,
We have reaped, we have mowed,
We have brought home every load,
Hip, hip, hip! Harvest home.’
Of course, if the harvest failed there were propitiatory rites to be observed during the coming months, since the survival of the community was dependant on the harvest for its survival. With an exceptionally bad year – and some years were terrible – the harvest-home rhymes reflected this:
The bread aint done, the cheese aint come,
The Devil never knew such a harvest home.
This theme is echoed in the famous cult-film, The Wicker Man, where human sacrifice was deemed necessary after several consecutive years of a failing harvest. The folk-song John Barleycorn also reflects the belief in the dying or sacrificial god for the benefit of the community. In good years, however, the chief feast of the year followed on the harvest with all the men, women and boys riding home on the last load, the horses’ harnesses gaily decorated with flowers, and horns being blown. Almost every village seems to have had its own version of the harvest-home rhyme:
Up! Up! Up! a merry harvest home,
We have sowed, we have mowed
We have carried our last load.
A good plum pudding and a good beef bone.
While a cauldron is the perfect container for a large ‘Harvest Home’ stew – we’d go for a crock-pot (or two) and cook it the day before as this does improve the taste. At the traditional supper, boiled beef and carrots was the staple fare, taken from the pot in the old way with a flesh-fork; the second course was the inevitable plum pudding, and both were washed down with draughts of specially brewed ale. At the end of the meal, the health of the master was sung. In Robert Herrick’s poem, ‘The Hock Cart, or Harvest Home’ we have a contemporary view of the ingredients of a typical 17th century celebration:
Well, on, brave boys, to your lord’s hearth, Glitt’ring with fire, where, for your mirth, Ye shall see first the large and chief Foundation of your feast, fat beef : With upper stories, mutton, veal And bacon (which makes full the meal), With sev’ral dishes standing by, As here a custard, there a pie, And here all-tempting frumenty. And for to make the merry cheer, If smirking wine be wanting here, There’s that which drowns all care, stout beer ; Which freely drink to your lord’s health,
Needless to say, these were always boozy, ribald affairs – and the relatively modern British tradition of celebrating the modern harvest festival in churches only began in 1843, when the Reverend Robert Hawker invited parishioners to a special thanksgiving service at his church in Morwenstow, Cornwall. Popular Victorian hymns such as We plough the fields and scatter, Come, ye thankful people, come and All things bright and beautiful helped spread the annual custom of decorating churches with home-grown produce for the harvest festival service. On 8th September 1854 the Rev Dr William Beal, Rector of Brooke, Norfolk, held a Harvest Festival aimed at ending what he saw as disgraceful scenes at the end of harvest, and went on to promote the cleaned-up ‘harvest homes’ in other Norfolk villages!
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 John Barleycorn 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. There appears to be some mystery as to who the three men were coming from the West (sunset – the place of death?) and the three men coming from the East (sunrise – the place of life?) and are possibly the personification of barley and its by-products of bread, beer and whisky. The lyrics to the Robert Burns version are as follows:
There was three kings into the west [or east] three kings both great and high, and they hae sworn a solemn oath John Barleycorn must die. They took a plough and plough’d him down, put clods upon his head, and they hae sworn a solemn oath John Barleycorn was dead. But the cheerful Spring came kindly on’ and show’rs began to fall. John Barleycorn got up again, and sore surprised them all.
Writer and storyteller, Austin Hackney, tells us that in the earliest Celtic writings and myths, the male heroes frequently set out in groups of three to undertake their sacred quests. Similarly, in Celtic myth, ‘The West’ as we know was a euphemism for ‘Otherworld’ – the mystic isle across the western sea where wonders and magic were commonplace, where pleasure and immortality could be found in the dwelling place of the gods.
‘Thus it seems reasonable that these words of the song are a remnant, a memory, of an earlier myth surrounding the figure of John Barleycorn: three magical heroes coming from the mystic ‘otherworld’ to bring about his death. In the body of anthropological and folkloric study that has been undertaken over the last hundred years or so there is a wealth of information and evidence to support the theory I propose here for the interpretation of this song – and for its roots in antiquity. From the common symbol of the Sacrificial King, the tomb/womb of death and rebirth and the residual folk customs (such as Corn Dollies and Soul Cakes) that are so redolent of the more terrible offerings of the pagan past, to the rites and rituals of modern pagan revival movements and interpretations in popular media (Stephen King’s Children of The Corn and the original Wicker Man for example). But for me there is an argument a little less scientific, but personally no less compelling: the simple enduring power and emotional impact of the story and of the song. It has survived a long time and still makes the hair on the back of one’s neck stand on end. That speaks to me of ancient roots that stir deep memories in the psyche.’
In Northern Europe, it was Michaelmas that marked the end of the harvest and some covens may prefer to hold their Harvest Home on this day since it was an important date in the rural calendar. This was the time that farm folk calculated how many animals they could afford to feed over the winter and how many would have to be sold or slaughtered and salted down in order to preserve the meat. In addition to livestock fairs, rural folk attended hiring fairs which were especially important for farm laborers looking for winter employment after the harvest. Old Michaelmas Day now falls on 11th October as a result of the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.
Michaelmas term [modern 29th September] is the first of the academic year in a number of English-speaking universities and schools, and was also one of the regular quarter-days for settling rents and accounts; often, since this was also the time of the ‘geese harvest’, and many a farmer paid off his accounts with a brace or more of plump birds from the flock hatched in the spring. Michaelmas also marked the end of the fishing season, the beginning of the hunting season, the traditional time to pick apples and the time to make cider.
Traditionally, on Michaelmas Day, families sat down to a roast goose dinner and it was the custom to hide a ring in the Michaelmas Pie; the person who found it would be married within the year. This was another old bit of folklore that leads us to believe it was a pie made with blackberries as part of the filling as it was once believed that on the feast of St. Michael, the devil spat on the blackberries (or worse!) and it was therefore very unwise to pick and eat the fruit after 29th September. According to legend, when St. Michael cast Satan from Heaven, the devil landed on earth in a patch of brambles and he returns every year to spit (or worse) on the plant that tortured him, breathing his foul breath over it and trampling it. In reality, with the onset of heavy dews and the first frosts, mildew begins to cloud any late berries. In medieval times in England it was a sign that the crop had been defiled and it was therefore deemed unwise to pick blackberries after Michaelmas Day. So no more blackberry pies for this year!
We can see from the above that, once again there is a lot of hidden symbolism concealed behind the historical and folklore elements of the harvest season which remains undiminished as the holiest time of the witch’s year. For those who view this from a purely urban standpoint and cannot understand the relevance as an integral part of today’s witchcraft, we would say that if this doesn’t speak of ancient roots and stir memories deep within the psyche, then perhaps your feet would be more suited to a different path. Kindred calls to kindred, blood calls to blood.
Taken from our Old Craft grimoire, Round About the Cauldron Go …