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 …
That popular catchphrase of Michelle Dubois of the Resistance in the popular television series, Allo Allo usually heralded some dastardly plan of the Gestapo to undermine the war effort. Been here before, hence the brevity of the text.
Once upon a time, a nasty politician decided to start a smear campaign against witches in the UK by publicly branding everyone in the pagan community as ‘satanic’ and ‘evil’ It was, therefore, entirely without warning in the spring of 1988 that one of our best-loved occult emporiums became the political focus for a concerted and highly inflammable (no pun intended) campaign to destroy occultism at source. The scare-mongers had prepared their infamous ‘dossier’ with the help of several quisling pagans, who had provided a valuable insight into the contemporary pagan scene, naming names, magazines, shops and organizations. In reality, this dossier was no more than a potted listing of UK businesses, publications and individuals – but it was used by anti-occult campaigners as ‘evidence’ of the upsurge in witchcraft – which they considered to be the same as Satanism.
Public fears around Satanism, in particular, came to be known as a distinct phenomenon: the ‘Satanic Panic’. The American-inspired campaign lasted five years and successfully tricked not only the British public into believing that satanic ritualised child-abuse really existed, but quite a few uninformed pagans, too! It was quickly discovered that the dividing line between gullible fundamentalists and gullible pagans was extremely vague, and for the duration of the campaign it was also revealed that several self-righteous pagans had helped the anti-occult campaigners’ cause by supplying inaccurate background information and incorrect opinions. Thereby supporting the persecution and jeopardizing other pagans, whist safeguarding themselves from attack, on the grounds that they were ‘only trying to explain …’
Some even publicly dismissed Social Services’ dawn roundups of children as none of their concern, because the majority of cases did not affect anyone with genuine pagan involvement. Several pagan publications even stated that as far as they were aware, there had been no cases of pagan children being taken into care – or worse – nor even any ‘unprovoked investigations’. This was incorrect – there had been cases of pagan children being taken into care as the ever-growing case-files showed and several parents lost custody cases because of their pagan beliefs. In fact, the authorities had successfully gagged parents by lawful process, which prevented any of them from contacting others for help and that was why no details surrounding the on-going cases were made public.
Thirty years later those schisms have never completely healed – and they never will. Because whether the pagan community like to admit it or not – there are now two distinct approaches to witchcraft. One is the cleaned up, politically correct, socially acceptable form of neo-goddess worship with little, or no mention of the god, since his image is more difficult to render impotent. Unfortunately this is increasingly becoming the generalized public face of witchcraft because traditionalists who prefer not to sanitise their deities, have retreated back into the shadows through sheer exasperation at the trivialization of their beliefs. The traditional approach to deity acknowledges the dual importance of both male and female elements which is essential to effective magical working.
There are few apologists among the ranks of the traditionalists, who appear less frequently on television and, more often than not, decline to give interviews for the national press decked out in flowing robes with garlands of flowers and pointy hats. Traditionalists often present a darker, less benign countenance – and it is towards this image of traditional Craft that vanilla-lite-pagans point the accusing finger of being practitioners of ‘dark magic’.
The publication of The Arte of Darkness was a timely endeavour since there are – one again – ominous undercurrents rumbling away that could spell an uncomfortable time for the pagan community in the not too distant future. The most frightening aspect of history repeating itself, however, was the announcement in the Irish Times in January 2018 that ‘Irish people are being ravaged by demonic possession’, and that the Catholic Church was ‘out of touch with reality’ as they were sending sufferers of possession to psychologists instead of performing rituals! The Catholic News Agency in Rome also reported demonic possessions were on the rise in Italy, despite Vatican News claiming that many Christians no longer believe in [the devil’s] existence … and when the church is in a position of weakness it requires a scapegoat!
We should all be wary of journalists and politicians trying to rejuvenate flagging careers by attempting to create another ‘Satanic Panic’ because they don’t hesitate to use in the same breath those time-honoured buzz-words – wicca, witch, pagan, occult, Aleister Crowley, et al. In the UK earlier this year, a satanic, racist, anarchist, neo-Nazi group founded in the UK in the 1970s and that now operates around the world, including in the US was (quite rightly, in my opinion) lambasted by a MP … but it has since been incorrectly and misleadingly ‘identified as exhibiting hermetic and modern pagan elements in its beliefs by academic researchers’. Alarm bells begin ringing …
I am proud of my time served as an anti-Satanic Panic activist but I have no desire to do it again and why I say: “Listen very carefully, I shall say zis only once” because it’s happened twice before in living memory and it can happen again … and how many self-styled pagans will, once again, join the ranks of accusers?
For the full story: The Arte of Darkness: Magic & Mystery From the Shadows – Melusine DracoISBN: 9781788769198 : Paperback : Pages 262 : £8.95published by 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. 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 act of propitiating or appeasing the gods is as old as humankind. And, it is just as much an integral part of pagan worship today as it was when our Mesolithic ancestors first began leaving their mark on the landscape – both to honour the gods in times of plenty and to appease them in times of trouble. For the tribes that were beginning to track their footsteps across the open plains of the vast continents, they left behind evidence of their ‘holy places’ – where they periodically stopped and gathered together in the act of honouring the Ancestors and denizens of Otherworld, according to the lights of their times … and as their customs directed.
Propitiation is the act of appeasing or making well-disposed a deity, thus courting divine favor or avoiding divine retribution. Some use the term interchangeably with expiation, while others draw a sharp distinction between the two, with expiation being the act of making amends or reparation for an offence committed, or atonement for some real or imagined wrong. However, they looked at it, primitive peoples were walking a precarious line in a world that was under constant threat from earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis; plus astronomical causes imposed severe phenomena on ancient societies, including catastrophic meteor impacts that allied themselves to the birth of numerous cultural myths and legends.
Serious illness, drought, pestilence, epidemic, famine, and other calamities – often brought about in the wake of natural disasters – have universally been regarded as the workings of supernatural forces. Often they have been interpreted as the effects of offenses against the sacred order committed by individuals and/or communities, deliberately or unintentionally. And, such offences broke the relationship with that sacred order or impeded the flow of divine life. It was then considered necessary in such times of crisis, individual or communal, to offer sacrifice to propitiate the sacred powers and to wipe out offences (or at least neutralize their effects) and restore the sacred harmony. Kindred calls to kindred, blood calls to blood.
For ancient societies, without the means to predict natural disasters, destruction could often come suddenly and completely by surprise. Scientists from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick have studied sedimentary ancient DNA (sedaDNA) from sediment deposits in the southern North Sea, an area which has not previously been linked to a tsunami that occurred 8150 years ago. This work demonstrates that an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists and scientists can bring this landscape back to life and even throw new light on one of prehistory’s great natural disasters, the Storegga tsunami.
Until about 8,000 years ago, the British Isles were part of a peninsula, joined to mainland Europe by a strip of chalk downs, swamps, lakes and wooded hills. We call this submerged world Doggerland and even today, fishermen routinely bring up carved bone and antler tools from the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who lived here. By the end of the 7th millennium BC, a warming world was causing sea levels to rise and the people of Doggerland must have watched with dread as their villages were swallowed up one by one. But one event would turn the slow advance of the sea into an apocalyptic terror.
‘The edge of the Norwegian continental shelf is an underwater cliff that runs for six hundred miles along the Atlantic Basin. And one autumn day around 6225–6170 BC, this cliff collapsed. An estimated 770 cubic miles, or over 50 Mount Everests, of rock broke off and slid into the deep ocean. The rubble flow reached a speed of 90 mph underwater. Meanwhile, on the surface, the ocean bent into a tsunami of unimaginable force. The waves may have reached initial heights of 260 feet, striking the Norwegian coast with 130 foot breakers, and Scotland with waves 65 feet high. As for the people who lived in the low-lying fens of Doggerland, scientists believe this tsunami would have been catastrophic. A 16 foot wall of water buried settlements and farms beneath the waves. And there they would wait 8,000 years for the nets of fishermen to dredge up their remains.’ [Discover Magazine]
Similarly, during the mid-second millennium BC, one power dominated the Mediterranean. From their capital on Crete, the Minoan influence reached Cyprus, across the Greek islands and into modern Turkey and the Palestinian coast. They left behind remarkable paintings and pioneered technological advancements like indoor plumbing. They grew and flourished. That is, until one summer day around the year 1,600 BC, when the volcano of Thera, on what is now the Greek island of Santorini, erupted with the force of two-million Hiroshima bombs. The destruction would have been virtually instant, eradicating all life on the island. Today, we can stand on top of cliffs 1,000 feet high that form the bowl of the Santorini crater, and imagine the vast tsunami that rippled across the sea, the sky blackening overhead.
Settlements on nearby Crete were swept away in a devastating event that destroyed the maritime trade that was their lifeblood, and the Minoan empire all but collapsed overnight. In the centuries that followed, they would disappear entirely, even down to their name (the word ‘Minoan’ is a Victorian invention). The eruption sent 24 cubic miles of rock into the atmosphere, four times more than the 1883 Krakatoa eruption. It blocked out the sun and threw the world into a period of bitter cold. Famine spread in Egypt as crops failed, and evidence of the eruption can even be found in the earliest of Chinese written chronicles.
The Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the second millennium BC was thriving. Languages and cultures mingled as trade routes criss-crossed land and sea, from Egypt and Greece to Turkey and the shores of Palestine. Markets bustled in the great thriving cities of Ugarit, Hattusha, Mycenae and Babylon, and the region saw a golden age of literacy and culture. But by 1,100 BC, virtually every society in this part of the world would collapse, into ash and ruin. And the cause of all this destruction may have been over 2500 miles away, on the snowy slopes of Iceland!
‘Hekla is one of the world’s most active volcanos and its most cataclysmic eruption in human history took place sometime around the year 1,100 BC. It threw nearly two cubic miles of volcanic rock into the atmosphere, and kicked off a period of cooling that would last for years. The rapid climate change that descended over northern Europe seems to have drivn a vsast number of refugees southward, placing unsustainable stresses on the region. The climate unrest caused several groups known as ‘The Sea Peoples’ to begin raiding in the south, causing the destruction and sacking of cities. Under famine, rebellions and outside attacks, the interdependent societies of the Bronze Age collapsed like dominos, and a period known as ‘The Late Bronze Age Collapse’ cast this whole region of the world into chaos.’ [Discover Magazine]
Natural disasters are something that humanity has had to deal with since its inception. They have the capability to wipe out significant amounts of the human and wildlife populations where they strike. In fact, it is highly probable that a natural disaster will be the cause of the end of the world, whenever that inevitably happens. Even the ‘cradle of civilisation’ has been beset with natural disaster and for earliest man this was both a blessing and a curse.
According to the National Geographic magazine, the system of rift valleys that characterizes the African continent represents a perfect environment in which to understand the evolution of mankind. Because the association between paleoanthropological discoveries and rift valleys is not accidental, since the volcanic and tectonic activities created the ideal conditions for the proliferation of life. Many extremely well-preserved human and animal fossils have been found in the Ethiopian rift valley, suggesting that this area may have represented a crucial site for human evolution in the last million years.
This most well-known rift valley on Earth, is the so-called ‘Great Rift Valley System’ which stretches from the Middle East in the north to Mozambique in the south. The area remains geologically active, and features volcanoes, hot springs, geysers, and frequent earthquakes; while research published last year by a team from the University of Oxford, suggests that a surge in volcanic activity along the Rift System might have forced early humans out of Africa, altering the course of our evolution forever. In all of these circumstances we can’t begin to imagine the terror experienced by our ancestors when their world was torn apart by these cataclysmic events. – for them the only answer could have been was that the gods must have been very angry indeed …
Ancient cultures practiced the ritualistic (sacrificial) killing of humans and animals for a number reasons: appeasement; retribution; expiation for guilt, an entreat for military victory over an enemy; a seasonal invocation for spring planting or fall harvesting; a contractual quid pro quo between ruler-kings in exchange for the deities’ delivering up an enemy, or granting some bizarre request.
The ancient Mesopotamians, Israelites, Egyptians, Africans, Germanic tribes, Mayas, Aztec, Celts, and Native Americans practiced a variety of ritualistic sacrifices. The Old Testament cites Jehovah’s commanding Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, an act that was averted at the last minute …although when Jephthah struck a deal with Jehovah; in return for victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah pledged to offer the first person who emerged from his house as a sacrificial offering. Little did he know that his young daughter would be the sacrificial lamb he would offer in return for his military victory.
In the Greek play Agamemnon, Aeschylus’ protagonist was about to set sail to wage war on Troy but because Agamemnon angered Artemis, she withheld the winds necessary to launch his fleet across the Aegean Sea. To appease her, he offered his daughter Iphigenia as a propitious sacrifice. To avenge the death of his son Androgeus (at the hand of the Athenians), Minos, the king of Crete, demanded that every seven years, seven Athenian youths and seven maidens be offered as sacrifices to appease the fabled Minotaur who dwelt in the labyrinth under his palace. Eventually Theseus, the young Athenian prince, put paid to this tithe by killing the legendary creature.
Queen Cassiopeia was known as the beautiful wife of King Cepheus. One day, she boasted that her daughter, Andromeda, was far more beautiful than the fifty Nereids, the sea-nymph daughters of Nereus (the old man of the sea). This boast angered Poseidon, who was married to Amphrite, the eldest of the Nereids. Poseidon had the sea monster, Cetus, destroy the city where Andromeda lived and the only way to stop Cetus was to sacrifice Andromeda to him. King Cepheus obeyed Poseidon and chained his daughter to a rock to save the land …
Greek mythology is replete with such acts of propitiation and expiation and, by ascribing human foibles to their pantheon of mighty gods – patricide, matricide, fratricide, and infanticide became the stuff that was celebrated in Greek mythology, poetry, and the visual arts.
Propitiation on a grand scale was also a shared religious practice among ancient Mesoamericans and Peruvians. According to their cosmological beliefs, the gods provided for mankind only if they themselves were placated. One method of this placation was human sacrifice and its purpose was to maintain a balance of the cosmos and appease the gods who presided over it. Instead of sacrificing members of their own community, however, pre-Columbians conducted ritual wars to gain sacrificial victims, which were captive male warriors. They perfected battle tactics that only wounded their enemies to ensure the prisoners could be killed later in a ritual sacrifice.
What is the meaning of sacrifice?
Sacrifice is the offering of food, objects or the lives of animals or humans to a higher purpose – in particular divine beings – as an act of propitiation or worship. Needless to say, putting others ahead of ourselves requires sacrifice and in more modern parlance it is the act of offering or the giving up of something we would prefer to keep.
What does it mean to make a sacrifice?
This is the act or ceremony of making an offering to a god especially on an altar, of something that is offered as a religious act; an act of giving up something especially for the sake of someone or something else.
What is the purpose of sacrifice?
Sacrifice is a religious rite in which an object is offered to a divinity in order to establish, maintain, or restore a right relationship of a human being within the sacred order. It is a complex phenomenon that has been found in the earliest known forms of worship and in all parts of the world.
What are the elements of sacrifice?
It is possible to analyze the rite of sacrifice in terms of six different elements: the sacrificer, the material of the offering, the time and place of the rite, the method of sacrificing, the recipient of the sacrifice, and the motive or intention of the rite. These categories are not of equal importance and often overlap.
Where is the place of sacrifice?
The common place of sacrifice in most cults is an altar; more often it was only a pillar, a mound of earth, a stone, or a pile of stones.
What is the difference between an offering and a sacrifice?
Offering is an act of gifting or donation, while sacrifice is the offering of anything to a god as part of consecratory rite.
To the detractors of pagan beliefs the term ‘sacrifice’ always refers to killing animals or harming humans – because they fail to understand that in a pagan sense, what is always offered in sacrifice is, in one form or another, life itself. Sacrifice is a celebration of life, an acceptance of its divine and imperishable nature. In the act of sacrifice the consecrated ‘life’ of an offering is released as a sacred link that establishes a bond between the sacrificer and the divine power. Through sacrifice, energy is returned to its divine source, regenerating the power or strength of that source; life is fed by life. Hence the words of the ancient Roman sacrificer to his god: ‘Be thou increased (macte) by this offering’. Needless to say, it is an increase in this divine power that is ultimately beneficial to the sacrificer because sacrifice is the merging and guarantee of the reciprocal flow of the divine life-force between its source and its embodiment. Kindred calls to kindred, blood calls to blood’
Often the act of sacrifice involves the destruction of the offering, but this destruction is not in itself the sacrifice. The destruction (or consumption) of a food-drink offering at an altar’s fire is the means by which the deity receives the offering. Thereby a sacrifice is the total act of offering and not merely the method in which the rite is performed. So, sacrifice as a sacramental communal meal may involve the idea of the god as a participant in the feast, or being identified with the food consumed; it may also involve the idea of a ritual meal at which, either some agrarian event such as the springtime (Beltaine) and the harvest (Lughnasad) is repeated, or the sacred rites of the seasons are symbolically renewed – the Summer and Winter Solstices. Although the fundamental meaning of these sacrificial rites is that of affirming a bounteous and fruitful relationship with the sacred power and of establishing humankind in the sacred order, the rites have in recent years assumed a multitude of different forms and intentions.
The organization of propitiatory rites in different cultures and religions has undoubtedly been influenced by a number of factors, and the importance of such factors is an aspect of sacrifice that deserves increased examination. Nevertheless, sacrifice is not a phenomenon that can be reduced to rational terms; it is fundamentally an act of faith that has been of profound significance to individuals and social groups throughout history; a symbolic act that establishes a relationship between mankind and the sacred order of things. For many peoples of the world, throughout the ages, sacrifice has been the very heart of their religious life.
Offerings for the Gods by sacrifice, oblation and libation by Melusine Draco is currently a work in progress and will be published as the first title 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.
Round About the Cauldron Go … in traditional British Old Craft
with Phillip Wright & Carrie West.
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.
A natural witch has the ability to identify and interact with this natural energy on which she (or he) must draw for all purposes of Craft practice. Without this natural ability there is no Old Craft witch, because as Hotspur retorts to Glendower’s claim that he can ‘call spirits from the vasty deep’. “Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?” And which particular energy do we conjure for what purpose? The gentle ethereal energy of the fields and hedgerows differs quite considerably from the primitive and often menacing energy of the woods and forests; or the ever-changing seashore; while mountains and rivers generate their own mystique.
The eight great fire festivals are marked by the Equinoxes and Solstices of the solar year, with the four traditional celebrations of Old Beltaine, Old Lammas, Old Hallowe’en and Old Candlemas making up the eight great Sabbats of the witch’s year. The fire festivals occur at the beginning of each quarter of the solar-tide cycle with Candlemas marking the end of the reign of the Holly King and heralding the first stirrings of the bright tide of summer of the Old Lass. At the turbulent tide of the Vernal Equinox, the bright and dark tides are equally balanced with the bright tide on the increase; Beltaine marked the traditional beginning of summer, which reached its height around the Midsummer Solstice. From here it begins to wane as we progress through the sacred time of harvest … towards the celebration of the Harvest Home.
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.
Husband and wife team, Phillip Wright and Carrie West ran their own coven for nearly thirty years before its disbanding and their return to the mother Coven of the Scales. They are also authors of Coven Working, Death and the Pagan and soon to be published, Round About the Cauldron Go … from Ignotus Books UK.
Because Round About the Cauldron Go … is being published as a limited edition, from time to time we will be including extracts on the Melusine Draco and Coven of the Scales Blogs.
Looking back I can see how my Shinto upbringing (my father was a martial arts instructor and a countryman) made it so easy to pick up on the underlying animistic threads of Old Craft and its associated esoteric practices. From a small child I was in touch with that indefinable sensation of witch-power, god-power, ki, qi, or earth energy – call it what you will – the natural energy that is believed to be an active principle forming part of any animate or inanimate thing.
Ki, I soon learned, was the unseen life force in our body and everywhere. It was the universal energy that penetrates everywhere uniting all manifestations of the universe, visible or invisible, animate or inanimate. This was the first understanding of the practical advantages of this unseen life force. And because there is no official Craft litany, I use a lot of Shinto belief and Zen philosophy to demonstrate how the elevation of the mind leads to higher understanding regardless of the Path being followed. For the traditional Japanese there is no dividing line between the divine and human, since the forces that move in Nature move in man, according to Zen teaching:
When one looks at it, one cannot see it:
When one listens for it, one cannot hear it:
However when one uses it, it is inexhaustible.
I used this quote in one of the first esoteric books I had published – What You Call Time – and I find that I have come full circle in trying to explain that everything, magical and mystical, really just comes down to this basic understanding (and acceptance) of ki – or whatever you like to call it! Unfortunately, within contemporary paganism, there appears to be a widening schism between those who are immediately at one with these thoughts – and those who need to assume the outward trappings of esoteric practices to enhance their personalities and elevate their standing in the eyes of others, without bothering to develop the inner Self.
There was an amusing instance just recently when a close colleague was told by a ‘celebrity witch’, that I couldn’t possibly have the antecedents I claim, because there was nothing written about them in my books! ‘Well, there wouldn’t be, would there?’ came the response. I don’t happen to feel the need to add every jot and tittle to my writing in order to convince the readership that I have indeed walked the Path of the Mysteries. Those who study with me are the ones who reap the benefit of this received wisdom – not those who would only gain their knowledge from reading a wide assortment of esoteric books.
In Zen it is the question that is most important – not the answer. And there is also understanding the concept of ‘secret teaching’ that always seems to rattles the cages of certain people in the magical community because they never stop to think of it as merely referring to the kind of teaching that cannot be set down in words but can only be learned through experience. These differences are also reflected in an increasing violence of speech within social media directed at those who do not share the same opinion over what are generally considered to be pagan issues.
I might even go so far as to say, that I find the level of personal intolerance far greater than it was when I first entered the pagan community back in the day. As an antidote, may I suggest that in the spirit of Zen it is possibly necessary to step away from this type of negative thinking and try seeing the world through the ‘way of the kami’. Folk Shinto (as opposed to State Shinto) includes numerous folk beliefs in supernatural agencies and spirits, and the practice of divination, ancestor worship, and shamanic healing. Some of these practices have been imported from Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, but the majority come from ancient local indigenous traditions that literally do trace their origins back to their hunter-gatherer ancestors. There are also many locations of stone ritual structures, refined burial practices and early tori that strengthened the continuity of primal Shinto; and at some point there was a recognition that the ancestors created the current generations and so the deep reverence of the Ancestors (tama) took shape. Here we find plenty of parallels between Eastern and Western paganism.
And I am not the only Western ‘pagan’ to recognise this juxtaposition. As Jon Moore wrote in Zen Druid: A Paganism for the 21st Century, earth-based spirituality is the bedrock of human interaction with Nature, the Cosmos and our fellow human beings. ‘In times of great change while the impetus is for reassessment and renewal, the field has become confused with different schools and methodologies. There are arguably now as many schools as there are practitioners.’
The Japanese find comfort and inspiration in the quality of their surroundings. They have built their shrines in spots of breath-taking beauty. They try to keep themselves constantly attuned to the loveliness all about them that leads them to participate in ceremonies and festivals that may seem strange to us. The Insect-Hearing Festival is an example of this. On a quiet evening in the early weeks of autumn, they sit quietly and listen to the noises of various insects. Just as typical is the story of the Zen teacher who stepped before his class one day to give a lecture. He paused to listen to the song of a bird outside the window, and then he dismissed the class. There are sermons in nature – and the Japanese hear them freely.
This is surely paganism at its most pure and one we can easily identify with in the West without having to embrace the religious doctrines of the East because this old agrarian and animistic-based belief focuses on the existence and power of the kami that exist in nature, and throughout Japan – and the rest of the world. Kami or shin is often defined in English as ‘god’, ‘spirit’, ‘spiritual essence’ – all these terms merely meaning ‘the energy generating a thing’. Though the word kami is translated multiple ways into English, no one English word expresses its full meaning. The ambiguity of the meaning of kami is necessary, as it conveys the ambiguous nature of kami themselves.
Western Animism: Zen & the Art of Positive Paganism by Melusine Draco is published by Moon Books (ww.moon-books.net) ISBN 978 1 78904 123 1 UK£6.99/US$10.95 : 80 pages : Available in paperback and e-book format.